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The patterns that link migraines to cities

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Brick buildings following the same pattern, huge and modern office constructions framed with straight and monotonous lines, long escalators, windows placed in a regular pattern, blinds forming horizontal lines, sparkling lights and deafening sounds. For many, this description fits in fully with the usual elements of a contemporary city. Nevertheless, for anyone who is suffering from migraines, a scenario like this can turn into a nightmare.

Migraines affect 12,6% of the Spanish population, more than 5 million people according to the Spanish Society of Neurology. It is a neurological disease that generates outbreaks of intense headache along with other symptoms like blurred vision, sensitivity to light, to sounds and smells, sickness and vomiting. These outbreaks usually take place when the affected person is in an urban environment, and can take place very rarely when in a natural environment. This all seems to be related to the effects of human’s evolution.

Cities and artificial constructions are built without taking into account the laws of nature. They are most often composed of regular and repetitive patterns which we would not easily find in the wild landscapes of our human ancestors. In 2050 the UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be living in cities. Urban environments are built without considering nature’s harmonious and balanced forms tending to create repetitive and regular shapes, which are now being related by neuroscientists with the visual stimulus that trigger migraines.

CVC’s NeuroComputation and Biological Vison Team (NeuroBiT) analyses and simulates how neurons are connected within the visual system from biologically plausible computational neurodynamical models of the human visual cortex. These models are used to study, in collaboration with researchers at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, the neuronal information foundations of the unusual behaviour in migraines. Dr. Xavier Otazu, NeuroBit team’s principal researcher, explains the evolutionary issue: “The human being has evolved to live in a natural environment. In fact, our ancestors lived in the jungle, in the forest, outdoors. Because of this, the human brain has evolved to process visual stimuli from nature and it works optimally in these environments. The problem comes when the brain finds itself in an urban context, it thus has to make a great effort in order to process the load of repetitive information surrounding it. This causes the cerebral overload that generates discomfort leading to migraines”.

The feeling of displeasure that people experience when observing certain images is called Visual Discomfort and it usually generates blurred vision or rejection. However, some brains are more sensitive than others to these images and, consequently, develop migraines more easily. The increasingly accepted explanation from recent results is that it is produced by an unusual operation of inhibitory neurons within the visual cortex.

Although there are many factors that influence the development of a migraine outbreak (genetics, food, exercise, loud noises, unpleasant smells, weather changes, stress, hormonal changes, among others) it is known that the main trigger is related to visual inputs: “There are different factors and every individual is more or less sensitive to each of them. However, most migraine outbreaks occur due to visual inputs, the rest of the factors only increase possibilities”, states Otazu.

Migraines are a non-cure disease. Despite that, there are treatments that make the pain lighter and prevent its appearance. According to doctors, one of the best solutions to prevent migraines is avoiding what starts them. For this reason, it is essential for patients to be able to identify them promptly.

Making this identification is crucial for patients. The NeuroBiT Team have developed a program that predicts the possibilities an image has of causing migraines. “The program analyses the neuronal activity and based on statistic measurements, we can see the possibilities of an image to produce migraine”, Otazu explains. The software is currently in the research phase but the idea is that it will become an app in the near future. From a simple photo of a room or an office, this app would be able to detect the grade of discomfort generated by each element.

Although those suffering from migraines will be the most benefited, it will also become a handy tool for the rest of us. Some artificial environments might alter less sensitive brains. To live surrounded by monotonous and regular patterns can affect productivity, concentration and lead to fatigue. For this reason, the app would also help them create more balanced environments and avoid those causing discomfort.

Nuria Martínez

The author Nuria Martínez