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Second only to headache, photophobia is the most debilitating symptom reported by people with migraine. While the melanopsin-containing intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) are thought to play a role, how cone and melanopsin signals are integrated in this pathway to produce visual discomfort is poorly understood. We studied 60 people: 20 without headache and 20 each with interictal photophobia from migraine with or without visual aura. Participants viewed pulses of spectral change that selectively targeted melanopsin, the cones, or both and rated the degree of visual discomfort produced by these stimuli while we recorded pupil responses. We examined the data within a model that describes how cone and melanopsin signals are weighted and combined at the level of the retina and how this combined signal is transformed into a rating of discomfort or pupil response. Our results indicate that people with migraine do not differ from headache-free controls in the manner in which melanopsin and cone signals are combined. Instead, people with migraine demonstrate an enhanced response to integrated ipRGC signals for discomfort. This effect of migraine is selective for ratings of visual discomfort, in that an enhancement of pupil responses was not seen in the migraine group, nor were group differences found in surveys of other behaviors putatively linked to ipRGC function (chronotype, seasonal sensitivity, presence of a photic sneeze reflex). By revealing a dissociation in the amplification of discomfort vs. pupil response, our findings suggest a postretinal alteration in processing of ipRGC signals for photophobia in migraine.


Harrison McAdams, Eric A Kaiser, Aleksandra Igdalova, Edda B Haggerty, Brett Cucchiara, David H Brainard, Geoffrey K Aguirre. Selective amplification of ipRGC signals accounts for interictal photophobia in migraine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2020 Jul 21;117(29):17320-17329

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PMID: 32632006

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