Color and Spatial Frequency Are Related to Visual Pattern Sensitivity in Migraine


  • Financial Support: This work was supported by a grant from The Royal Society (UK) to Dr. Shepherd, and a grant from Behavioural Basis of Health, Griffith Health Institute (Australia), to Dr. Hine.
  • Conflict of Interest: The authors report no conflict of interest.

Address all correspondence to A. Shepherd, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX, UK, email:



To assess the potential for particular colors to alleviate visual discomfort when people with migraine view repetitive geometric or striped patterns.


Visual stimuli, such as flicker, glare, or stripes, can trigger migraine and headache. They can also elicit feelings of discomfort and aversion. There are reports that color can be used to decrease the experience of discomfort and reduce migraine frequency.


Five sets of striped patterns (3, 12 cycles per degree [cpd]) were created using cardinal colors tailored to selectively stimulate the early visual pathways: achromatic (black/white), tritan (black/purple, black/yellow), protan/deutan (black/red, black/green). All had the same high luminance contrast (0.9 Michelson contrast). Twenty-eight migraine (14 migraine with aura, 14 migraine without aura) and 14 control participants rated the discomfort and described the distortions seen in these patterns. They were also assessed for visual migraine/headache triggers, contrast sensitivity, color vision, acuity, stereopsis, visual discomfort from reading, and dyslexia.


In the migraine groups, a comparable number of illusions were seen with the 3 and 12 cpd achromatic gratings, whereas in the control group the greatest number was seen with the 3 cpd grating. In the migraine groups only, all 4 colors reduced, to some extent, the number of illusions and 2 decreased the discomfort, particularly for the 12 cpd gratings. There were significant group differences for contrast sensitivity, reported visual migraine/headache triggers, and the visual discomfort scale. There were a few significant correlations between the different measures, notably between the achromatic visual discomfort measures and reports of visual migraine triggers.


Color, independent of luminance or particular color contrasts, can have therapeutic effects for people with visually triggered migraine as it can reduce the number of perceived illusions when viewing stripes or text. The effect was not color-specific and was greatest for the 12 cpd gratings. Given the significant associations between the achromatic discomfort measures and reports of visual triggers, and the lack of significant associations between the chromatic discomfort measures and reports of visual triggers, further research is recommended to explore the potential to reduce the number of visually triggered migraines with color in addition to alleviating visual discomfort.