Alterations in Functional Connectivity During Different Phases of the Triggered Migraine Attack

Headache. 2020 Jun 22. doi: 10.1111/head.13865. Online ahead of print.


Objective: To understand the changes in functional connectivity between brain areas of potential importance in migraine during different phases of the attack.

Background: Migraine is a symptomatically heterogeneous disorder. Understanding the possible changes in brain function and, therefore, neurobiology during different phases of the migraine attack is important in developing disease biomarkers and advancing therapeutics.

Design: Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-visit experimental study.

Methods: Subjects aged 18-50 years with migraine with and without aura (≤22 headache days per month) were recruited from across the UK using advertising, from both population and hospital clinic samples (n = 53). Consented subjects had a 0.5 µg/kg/min nitroglycerin infusion or to placebo over 20 minutes during the period February 2015-July 2017. All subjects were exposed to a nitroglycerin infusion at least on 1 occasion at screening. For those subjects who consented to participate in imaging visits (n = 25), structural T1, T2 and FLAIR sequences and resting state blood oxygen level dependant contrast (rsBOLD) time series, using a multiecho EPI sequence, were conducted over 30-40 minutes at baseline and rsBOLD during premonitory symptoms and migraine headache on a 3T General Electric MR750 MRI scanner. For the placebo visit, the imaging was conducted at the same times following infusion in the absence of symptoms.

Results: Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) coordinates were used to characterize brain areas of connectivity change identified. Using repeated measures ANOVA models with time (visit number) and trigger substance (nitroglycerin/placebo) as factors, significant positive functional coupling was found between the thalami bilaterally and the right precuneus and cuneus regions during the nitroglycerin-triggered premonitory phase (T = 3.23, peak connectivity change at [-6, -68, 40] for left thalamus, P = .012 and [-4, -68, 40] for right thalamus, P = .019). The nitroglycerin-triggered premonitory phase was associated with a change in the direction of connectivity from positive to negative between the pons and the limbic lobe (T = 3.47, peak connectivity change at [2, 8, 50], P < .001). The headache phase of the nitroglycerin-triggered migraine attack was associated with ongoing negative functional coupling between the pons and the cingulate and frontal cortices, and positive functional coupling between the pons and the cerebellar tonsils and medulla (T = 3.47, peak connectivity change at [-8, -52, -58], P = .007).

Conclusions: Understanding the functional reorganization between subcortical and cortical brain areas in different phases of the migraine attack provides novel insights into the abnormal sensory processing and integration during migraine, as well as functional correlation with clinical symptoms displayed during each phase.

Keywords: connectivity; fMRI; headache; migraine; neuroimaging; premonitory.