The impact of a migraine attack on cognitive processes

As an extracurricular activity during my masters, I was involved in a study on the impact of a migraine attack and its after-effects on perceptual organization, attention, and working memory. 

The aim of the study was to assess whether and which cognitive (perceptual, attentional, or memory) processes are impaired during the first 48 hours after a migraine attack.

Together with 2 other students, we designed, developed and administered three different cognitive tasks (global-local task, the attentional network task, and N-back task) to 16 migraine patients (13 had migraine without aura; mean age was 58 years, 15 were female) and 18 controls (mean age was 59 years, 15 were female), who were matched on age, gender, and educational level. The cognitive tasks were administered at three time points; during the first headache free day following a migraine attack (first session), 24 hours later (second session), and 12 days after the attack (third session). Reaction time and accuracy for all computerized tasks were analyzed using analysis of variance (ANOVA) for repeated measurements. T-tests were used for more detailed comparisons.

Perceptual organization

Findings showed no significant differences for the attentional network and N-back tasks between migraineurs and controls. In the global-local task, however, controls showed faster reaction times to global than to local stimuli, which is the standard global-precedence effect. This effect was absent in the migraineurs in all three sessions, especially if they used prophylaxis. Migraineurs had no impaired attentional or working memory functioning in the two days after an attack. They did show impairments in the processing of global visual features compared with controls, both between and immediately after an attack.

Tools, skills, and experience

In this study, I collaborated with other psychology students and doctors at the Leiden University Medical Centre. As part of my tasks, I:

  • Developed experimental stimuli using E-prime.
  • Collected data by visiting patients in their homes
  • Analyzed part of the quantitative data using ANOVAs and t-tests with SPSS


Many migraine patients report cognitive complaints during the first hours or days following a migraine attack, but studies of after-effects of a migraine attack on cognitive functioning are scarce. This work contributes to an understanding of these after-effects.

This study is published in the Journal Cephalalgia: Koppen, H., Palm-Meinders, I., Kruit, M., Lim, V., Nugroho, A., Westhof, I., Terwindt, G., Buchem, M., Ferrari, M., Hommel, B., (2011) The impact of a migraine attack and its after-effects on perceptual organisation, attention, and working memory. 


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