When memory loss is a sign of 'painless' migraines – and high fliers are most at risk
00:04 GMT, 16 October 2012
'I had no pain but I felt really dizzy and unable to focus,' said Sharon Richards
For Sharon Richards, the regular nursery run had suddenly turned into the stuff of nightmares.
Scouring the faces of youngsters running to hug their parents she couldn’t spot George, her son.
In fact, George was the boy with big blue eyes and blond hair standing directly in front of her.
However, her brain simply didn’t register his face.
Only by looking at his clothes did she know it was him.
She remained calm — she could not let her little boy know — but on the inside she was panicking.
It felt like a frightening warning sign of Alzheimer’s, or even a stroke.
But, in fact, Sharon was having a migraine.
in five Britons suffers from migraines, and a common misconception is
that they’re simply very bad headaches, often accompanied by nausea and a
sensitivity to light.
the truth is no two migraines are the same and some patients do not
actually have any pain at all, instead suffering symptoms such as
dizziness, confusion and even, as Sharon discovered, memory loss and
This is known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome because it’s characterised by strange visual experiences like those Alice has in Lewis Carroll’s book.
Sharon, 54, a consultant psychologist who lives with her husband, Bill, a university lecturer, and two sons, Sam and George, in Sale, Greater Manchester, experienced her first symptoms 13 years ago.
‘I had no pain but I felt really dizzy and unable to focus. I had a feeling of terrible pressure, and blind spots in my eye.
'All I wanted to do was sleep, not because I was tired but because it was the only way to stop the symptoms.
'When I went back to work the next week I felt OK, but then it started again.’
It would be ten years before Sharon discovered what was wrong with her
It would be ten years before Sharon discovered what was wrong with her.
In this time her symptoms worsened dramatically.
‘Within about two months I was feeling so dizzy at times that my eyes went from side to side as if I had been on the waltzers at a funfair.
'I looked drunk — I had to hold on to the filing cabinet to get the next patient’s notes.’
One of the most worrying symptoms was the visual disturbance.
‘I have three degrees and speak French fluently, yet more and more frequently I found it impossible to read, as if my brain was no longer able to decode the squiggles on the page,’ recalls Sharon.
‘And then not being able to recognise faces was scary, really scary.
'That day at the nursery, a few months after the symptoms first started, was frightening. I thought I had a brain tumour.’
Within two months Sharon had stopped working because she was forgetting key information and even telephone calls she had taken.
She saw her GP, who thought the problem was due to bad posture.
Sharon wasn’t convinced and arranged MRI scans, as well as seeing ear, nose and throat specialists and even a neurologist privately, but they could find nothing wrong with her.
Eventually, a decade after her symptoms first started she was diagnosed with migraine.
‘It was a huge relief to finally know what it was. I’d had no idea that migraines could take this form, or even that you could have one without having a headache,’ says Sharon.
Doctors told Sharon she had chronic migraine, also known as transformed migraine, where episodic migraines develop into a constant one, with lapses lasting days at a time.
Experts believe migraine is caused by nerves in the brain.
‘In the past, migraine was thought by some experts to be caused by stress, blood vessel disease, neck strain or poor posture, some foods such as chocolate or cheese, allergy, or heart disease,’ says Dr Giles Elrington, consultant neurologist at the National Migraine Centre.
‘While these matters may sometimes contribute to migraine, they are no longer thought to be the underlying cause.
'The underlying cause is certainly in the nerves of the brain.’
In migraine, the nerves become overly sensitised and while this can cause the characteristic throbbing headache, it can also trigger aura.
One-in-five migraine sufferers are affected by aura — symptoms include seeing flashing lights or zig-zags, heightened sensitivity to smell or light, numbness or tingling, slurred speech, drowsiness, visual or speech disturbance, and feeling spaced out and detached.
Normal stimuli such as smells and light overwhelm the brain, so it ‘shuts down’, explains Dr Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist at the Walton Centre in Liverpool who is now treating Sharon.
This can lead to so-called Alice in Wonderland syndrome.
‘This is most common in migraine, but is also occasionally seen in glandular fever or epilepsy,’ says Dr Silver.
One in five Britons suffers from migraines
Symptoms include distortion of time, where everything slows down, feeling the wrong size compared with your environment — for example, the room looks four to five times too big or a person in the street looks tiny — or other, very vivid hallucinations.
‘It relates to brain dysfunction, but we know no more,’ he adds.
‘People with migraine like this are often highly motivated and focused, want to do everything for everyone else, are very successful, and have to have everything just right.’
It’s not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose these forms of migraine, he says.
‘Often the doctor will suspect it’s a psychological disorder, as the patient has a long list of symptoms yet nothing abnormal shows on examination. Some doctors will conclude it is all in their mind, which is something I have a real problem with.’
Indeed, doctors say it is impossible to know how many have Alice in Wonderland syndrome because patients will hide their symptoms for fear of being thought of as psychologically disturbed.
Dr Silver says patients who have migraine should avoid all caffeine and medications and follow a healthy lifestyle with plenty of sleep.
But he says there are a number of promising new treatments, such as Botox (Botulinum toxin) for patients who have been unresponsive to traditional treatments.
There are also some effective migraine-preventive drugs, including some unlicensed in this country, which can only be prescribed at specialist clinics. New electronic and magnetic stimulator devices that are going through studies show particular promise.
Once Sharon had the correct diagnosis for her symptoms, she was able to try treatments for migraines.
Unfortunately, she’s suffered from severe side-effects.
Amytriptyline, an antidepressant, which has been shown to work on migraine, ‘made me almost comatose’, while some anti-epileptic drugs ‘made it difficult for me to put a sentence together or even remember common words’.
Sharon is still affected by some if not all of the effects of migraine. She has tried, but not been able to return to work.
‘I have migraine aura every day, which, if I don’t manage to get rid of it by sleeping, will turn into full blown migraine lasting many days.
'I have all the symptoms I originally had but it is not 100 per cent of the time,’ she says.
And while her other symptoms seem to be worsening — she recently had a flare-up lasting nine days — she still does not have a headache.
She continues to have frequent relapses that last weeks at a time, including the visual disturbances.
‘Last year, we were going to see friends and stopped at the cash machine, and a man started to talk to me.
‘I didn’t know who he was. It turned out it was the friend whose house we were going to.
'And then in the car park I couldn’t recognise my husband or our car.
‘There were a few black cars and I just walked around wondering which was ours. Then I saw my umbrella on the back shelf and I knew it was our car.
‘I am on a beta blocker at the moment. They are some help but I still have daily symptoms and many days when I can’t function at all.
'I keep a diary and out of a three-month period, 57 days have been completely non-functioning.’
She becomes upset when she looks at the diary’s pages.
‘For the first time, I don’t think I am going to get better. I am a very positive person, but months go by and you do as you are told — you take tablets because you hope it will help.
‘I look back at the time from when George was born to him being four, when I was working, and it was lovely.
'We had money, and in fact we were going to buy a bigger house. I am so thankful we didn’t, given the way things have turned out.
‘I look at myself now at nearly 55 and I think my life stopped at 42.
'And it’s almost like I am waiting for my life back.’
For help and information, contact the National Migraine Centre at nationalmigrainecentre.org.uk or call The Migraine Trust on 0207 631 6970.