Can Stripes Trigger Migraines—and Even Seizures?

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021

Striped patterns, whether seen on a shirt, wallpaper, building architecture, or even ocurring in nature can set off gamma oscillations in the brain.

stripesAlexander Image/ShutterstockLook up from working at your computer screen and it’s likely you’ll see an afterimage of a striped pattern of some form. From the blinds on your window to stripes on your co-worker’s shirt, it seems stripe patterns are all around us. And looking at them might trigger a headache—or even something more serious.

As part of a study in the journal Current Biology, researchers from the Netherlands and the United States that looking at vertical lines, either as part of a still image or in real life, causes a neural loop of activity in the brain, the Telegraph reports. This loop can cause epilepsy in its worst cases, but more commonly it can trigger a migraine. There are numerous causes of migraines, and study researchers believe that in migraines where the cause is unknown it is possible that striped patterns like those found on clothing, buildings, or room decor could be the cause. Additionally, items like radiators, repetitious patterns, escalators, and even deckchairs can “set off attacks, seizures or just a vague feeling of unease.”

“Our findings imply that in designing buildings, it may be important to avoid the types of visual patterns that can activate this circuit and cause discomfort, migraines, or seizures,” said Dora Hermes, MD, of the University Medical Center (UMC) Utrecht in the Netherlands. “Even perfectly healthy people may feel modest discomfort from the images that are most likely to trigger seizures in photosensitive epilepsy.”

For the study, researchers conducted a review of scientific literature and found that repetitious stripe patterns can set off gamma oscillations in the brain. It’s unclear whether gamma oscillations are a necessary part of brain activity, or just a “byproduct of brain function.” The Telegraph notes that “stripe patterns produce strong gamma oscillations while puffy clouds or natural scenes typically do not,” and the reasoning behind that is still unclear to experts.

For the research, study authors used warped images of black and white stripes, adjusting the width of vertical lines until a grid pattern was formed. When researchers widened the stripes they found the oscillation function in participants began to lessen. They hope to have a study in the future in which they can use pictures of life around us, including interior designs and cityscapes, to predict if even natural images cause gamma oscillations and seizures or migraines.

“Vertical orientation of stripes are in general worse than horizontal,” said Dorothée Kasteleijn-Nolst Trenité, MD, an epileptologist of UMC Utrecht. Study co-author, Jonathan Winawer at New York University also said that items like “radiator grills can be provocative, and are in fact sometimes covered by patients with pattern-sensitive epilepsy.”

If you’re one of the many who suffer from migraines, here are some proven remedies that could help you feel better.