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Keywords:

  • migraine;
  • photophobia;
  • light stimulation;
  • defense mechanism;
  • sensitization

Background.— The brain of migraineurs is hyperexcitable, particularly the occipital cortex, which is probably hypersensitive to light. Photophobia or hypersensitivity to light may be accounted for by an increased excitability of trigeminal, the visual pathways, and the occipital cortex.

Objective.— To study light sensitivity and photophobia by assessing the response to light stimuli with functional magnetic resonance imaging–blood oxygenation level dependent (fMRI-BOLD) of the occipital cortex in migraineurs and in controls. Also, to try to decipher the contribution of the occipital cortex to photophobia and whether the cortical reactivity of migraineurs may be part of a constitutional (defensive) mechanism or represents an acquired (sensitization) phenomenon.

Methods.— Nineteen patients with migraine (7 with aura and 12 without aura) and 19 controls were studied with fMRI-BOLD during 4 increasing light intensities. Eight axial image sections of 0.5 cm that covered the occipital cortex were acquired for each intensity. We measured the extension and the intensity of activation for every light stimuli. Photophobia was estimated according to a 0 to 3 semiquantitative scale of light discomfort.

Results.— Migraineurs had a significantly higher number of fMRI-activated voxels at low (320.4 for migraineurs [SD = 253.9] and 164.3 for controls [SD = 102.7], P = .027) and medium-low luminance levels (501.2 for migraineurs [SD = 279.5] and 331.1 for controls [SD = 194.3], P = .034) but not at medium-high (579.5 for migraineurs [SD = 201.4] and 510.2 for controls [SD = 239.5], P = .410) and high light stimuli (496.2 for migraineurs [SD = 216.2] and 394.7 for controls [SD = 240], P = .210). No differences were found with respect to the voxel activation intensity (amplitude of the BOLD wave) between migraineurs and controls (8.98 [SD = 2.58] vs 7.99 [SD = 2.57], P = .25; 10.82 [SD = 3.27] vs 9.81 [SD = 3.19], P = .31; 11.90 [SD = 3.18] vs 11.06 [SD = 2.56], P = .62; 11.45 [SD = 2.65] vs 10.25 [SD = 2.22], P = .16). Light discomfort was higher in the group of migraineurs at all the intensities tested, but there was no correlation with the number of activated voxels in the occipital cortex and photophobia. Repetitive light stimuli failed to demonstrate a lack of habituation in migraineurs.

Conclusions.— Migraineurs during interictal periods showed hyperxcitability of the visual cortex with a wider photoresponsive area, the underlying mechanism probably being dual: constitutional-defensive and acquired-sensitizating.