August 11, 2009

Hassenstein's vision for migraine relief

In 1979, Bernhard Hassentstein came to the truly remarkable conclusion that an avenue for migraine relief, cure or prevention may open up by investigating visual disturbances—30 years later, we stay at the beginning of this avenue

Bernhard Hassenstein, born in 1922, is a German behavioral biologist and one of the early founders of biological cybernetics. In 1981, he was asked to contribute a chapter to a book celebrating the 70th birthday of Klaus Piper, owner of the Munich-based publisher Piper Verlag. He thought about a topic that could be both enjoyable and academic. He came up with "Five variations about my migraine".

In his last, the fifth episode from 1979, Hassenstein describes very precise measurements of the position of his migraine aura within the visual field. He estimates that the disturbance, which causes his visual migraine symptoms, propagates in the gray matter surface of the brain, that is, the cortex, with a constant velocity. For this he assumed that the inverse cortical magnification factor increases linearly with eccentricity. Simply speaking, there is a rather simple scaling law how visual input from the eye is magnified in our brain so that acuity is largest in the center of gaze. Similar data were published, for example, later by Otto-Joachim Grüsser.

Hassenstein concluded (in his own words):

"private Migräne könnte dereinst zur besseren Aufklärung [...] beitragen und darauf folgend vielleicht sogar zur Linderung, Heilung oder Vorbeugung. Denn die Meßkurven beweisen, daß die Störung ... im Gehirn abläuft."

"... my private migraines could some day contribute to explain migraine and even to its relief, cure or prevention. For the measurements are evidence of a disturbance in the brain."
[my translation]

Full essay is only available in German:

I learned about this from Bernhard Hassenstein in the mid 1990ies during Manfred Eigen's famous Winterseminars "Biophysical Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Cybernetics of Cell Functions" in Klosters (Swiss). It inspired me to take a closer look at the spatio-temporal development of migraine aura symptoms, which—exactly 30 years after Hassenstein's first visionary self oberservations—led to the recent migraine fMRI study in PLoS ONE. This article is also described for a wider public in a separate blog post.

At the internationally renowned Technische Universität Berlin, we study in newly funded projects within the next years the unique set of data, which I collected over the last 15 years, linking physiological and mathematical pictures of migraine to further explore Hassenstein's vision.

Pflieger M, Piper, ER (Eds). Für Klaus Piper zum 7O. Geburtstag 27. März 1981. ' Piper-Verlag, München 1981