Migraine attacks as a result of hypothalamic loss of control

Anne Stankewitz, Leonie Keidel, Mathias Rehm, Stephanie Irving, Stephan Kaczmarz, Christine Preibisch, Viktor Witkovsky, Claus Zimmer, Enrico Schulz, Thomas R. Toelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Migraine is a complex neurological disorder affecting approximately 12% of the population. The pathophysiology is not yet fully understood, however the clinical features of the disease, such as the cyclic behaviour of attacks and vegetative symptoms, suggest a prominent role of the hypothalamus. Previous research has observed neuronal alterations at different time points during the migraine interval, specifically just before the headache is initiated. We therefore aimed to assess the trajectory of migraineurs’ brain activity over an entire migraine cycle. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with pseudo-continuous arterial spin labelling (ASL), we designed a longitudinal intra-individual study to detect the rhythmicity of (1) the cerebral perfusion and (2) the hypothalamic connectivity over an entire migraine cycle. Twelve episodic migraine patients were examined in 82 sessions during spontaneous headache attacks with follow-up recordings towards the next attack. We detected cyclic changes of brain perfusion in the limbic circuit (insula and nucleus accumbens), with the highest perfusion during the headache attack. In addition, we found an increase of hypothalamic connectivity to the limbic system over the interictal interval towards the attack, then collapsing during the headache phase. The present data provide strong evidence for the predominant role of the hypothalamus in generating migraine attacks. Due to a genetically-determined cortical hyperexcitability, migraineurs are most likely characterised by an increased susceptibility of limbic neurons to the known migraine trigger. The hypothalamus as a metronome of internal processes is suggested to control these limbic circuits: migraine attacks may occur as a result of the hypothalamus losing control over the limbic system. Repetitive psychosocial stress, one of the leading trigger factors reported by patients, might make the limbic system even more vulnerable and lead to a premature triggering of a migraine attack. Potential therapeutic interventions are therefore suggested to strengthen limbic circuits with dedicated medication or psychological approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102784
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Attacks
  • Hypothalamus
  • Imaging
  • Limbic system
  • Migraine


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