Migrainous Auras: Artistic Inspiration and Risk for Stroke, Cardiovascular Disease

LAS VEGAS—An estimated 18% of Americans suffer migraines, 20% of whom experience visual and neurologically-complex perceptual disturbances known as auras. Paradoxically, those often-frightening distortions may have enriched our world by influencing the art of famous painters and authors, according to Gary W. Jay, MD, DAAPM, FAAPM, CEO and CMO of Virtuous Pharma, Inc.

“Famous people who might’ve experienced auras include Lewis Carol who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a rather well-known painter named Vincent van Gogh,” Dr. Jay said to attendees at PAINWeek 2014. Some people believe the visual distortions at the center of these men’s art, came from migraine auras. The list of other suspected and known famous migraineurs includes Frederich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Pierre-Seurat.

“There are different types of migraines,” Dr. Jay explained. “You can have an aura without headache, visual aura with no headache associated. I wouldn’t say it’s common, nor quite rare – perhaps 5% to 6%. It may only happen once or twice.” Aura itself is therefore an indication for a full neurological workup, he said.

Although migraine is not associated with loss of consciousness, aura symptoms sometimes lead to misdiagnosis as seizure. Migraine with aura involves periods of local neurological symptoms preceding headache, which include visual, sensory, or speech symptoms, or visual symptoms including scotoma or seeing zig-zag lines.

“Sensory auras may be numbness or tingling of the face or fingers,” he added. “There may also be speech difficulties.” Lewis Carol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking- Glass drew on sensations of bodily distortion and light sensitivity reported among some people who suffer from migraine, he noted. In some cases, the artwork that Dr. Jay believes may have been inspired by migraine auras, has come to serve as a description of those symptoms. “Some Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS) symptoms include feeling as if your body is too big or too small (and) time may feel like it slows down or speeds up,” Dr. Jay said.

“[The artist] Georges-Pierre Seurat experienced migraine with visual auras,” he added. “The pointillistic effect he developed was thought to be secondary to a visual aura. Other scotoma suggestive images include gliding and idle boats, smoking factories, chimneys, and more, with slightly inaccurate colors and contrasts. In some neurological writing, the ‘Seurat effect’ represents scintillating scotomas. … ‘Picasso-like’ and ‘cubist’ are possibly more understood as meaning migraine than the ‘Seurat Effect,’ though.”