Migraine is a complex disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of headache, and is one of the most prevalent and disabling neurological disorders. A key feature of migraine is that various factors can trigger an attack, and this phenomenon provides a unique opportunity to investigate disease mechanisms by experimentally inducing migraine attacks. In this Review, we summarize the existing experimental models of migraine in humans, including those that exploit nitric oxide, histamine, neuropeptide and prostaglandin signalling. We describe the development and use of these models in the discovery of molecular pathways that are responsible for initiation of migraine attacks. Combining experimental human models with advanced imaging techniques might help to identify biomarkers of migraine, and in the ongoing search for new and better migraine treatments, human models will have a key role in the discovery of future targets for more-specific and more-effective mechanism-based antimigraine drugs.