Cortical spreading depression (CSD), a slowly propagated wave of depolarization followed by suppression of brain activity, is a remarkably complex event that involves dramatic changes in neural and vascular function. Since its original description in the 1940s, CSD has been hypothesized to be the underlying mechanism of the migraine aura. Substantial evidence from animal models provides indirect support for this hypothesis, and studies showing that CSD is common in humans with brain injury clearly demonstrate that the phenomenon can occur in the human brain. Considerable uncertainty about the role of CSD in migraine remains, however, and key questions about how this event is initiated, how it spreads, and how it might cause migraine symptoms remain unanswered. This Review summarizes current concepts of CSD and its potential roles in migraine, and addresses ongoing studies aimed at a clearer understanding of this fundamental brain phenomenon.