NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

  • By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.
Cover of Neuroscience

Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

Show details

Types of Eye Movements and Their Functions

There are four basic types of eye movements: saccades, smooth pursuit movements, vergence movements, and vestibulo-ocular movements. The functions of each type of eye movement are introduced here; in subsequent sections, the neural circuitry responsible for three of these types of movements is presented in more detail (see Chapters 14 and 19 for further discussion of neural circuitry underlying vestibulo-ocular movements).

Saccades are rapid, ballistic movements of the eyes that abruptly change the point of fixation. They range in amplitude from the small movements made while reading, for example, to the much larger movements made while gazing around a room. Saccades can be elicited voluntarily, but occur reflexively whenever the eyes are open, even when fixated on a target (see Box A). The rapid eye movements that occur during an important phase of sleep (see Chapter 28) are also saccades. The time course of a saccadic eye movement is shown in Figure 20.4. After the onset of a target for a saccade (in this example, the stimulus was the movement of an already fixated target), it takes about 200 ms for eye movement to begin. During this delay, the position of the target with respect to the fovea is computed (that is, how far the eye has to move), and the difference between the initial and intended position, or “motor error” (see Chapter 19), is converted into a motor command that activates the extraocular muscles to move the eyes the correct distance in the appropriate direction. Saccadic eye movements are said to be ballistic because the saccade-generating system cannot respond to subsequent changes in the position of the target during the course of the eye movement. If the target moves again during this time (which is on the order of 15–100 ms), the saccade will miss the target, and a second saccade must be made to correct the error.

Figure 20.4. The metrics of a saccadic eye movement.

Figure 20.4

The metrics of a saccadic eye movement. The red line indicates the position of a fixation target and the blue line the position of the fovea. When the target moves suddenly to the right, there is a delay of about 200 ms before the eye begins to move to (more...)

Smooth pursuit movements are much slower tracking movements of the eyes designed to keep a moving stimulus on the fovea. Such movements are under voluntary control in the sense that the observer can choose whether or not to track a moving stimulus (Figure 20.5). (Saccades can also be voluntary, but are also made unconsciously.) Surprisingly, however, only highly trained observers can make a smooth pursuit movement in the absence of a moving target. Most people who try to move their eyes in a smooth fashion without a moving target simply make a saccade.

Figure 20.5. The metrics of smooth pursuit eye movements.

Figure 20.5

The metrics of smooth pursuit eye movements. These traces show eye movements (blue lines) tracking a stimulus moving at three different velocities (red lines). After a quick saccade to capture the target, the eye movement attains a velocity that matches (more...)

The smooth pursuit system can be tested by placing a subject inside a rotating cylinder with vertical stripes. (In practice, the subject is more often seated in front of a screen on which a series of horizontally moving vertical bars is presented to conduct this “optokinetic test.”) The eyes automatically follow a stripe until they reach the end of their excursion. There is then a quick saccade in the direction opposite to the movement, followed once again by smooth pursuit of a stripe. This alternating slow and fast movement of the eyes in response to such stimuli is called optokinetic nystagmus. Optokinetic nystagmus is a normal reflexive response of the eyes in response to large-scale movements of the visual scene and should not be confused with the pathological nystagmus that can result from certain kinds of brain injury (for example, damage to the vestibular system or the cerebellum; see Chapters 14 and 19).

Vergence movements align the fovea of each eye with targets located at different distances from the observer. Unlike other types of eye movements in which the two eyes move in the same direction (conjugate eye movements), vergence movements are disconjugate (or disjunctive); they involve either a convergence or divergence of the lines of sight of each eye to see an object that is nearer or farther away. Convergence is one of the three reflexive visual responses elicited by interest in a near object. The other components of the so-called near reflex triad are accommodation of the lens, which brings the object into focus, and pupillary constriction, which increases the depth of field and sharpens the image on the retina (see Chapter 11).

Vestibulo-ocular movements stabilize the eyes relative to the external world, thus compensating for head movements. These reflex responses prevent visual images from “slipping” on the surface of the retina as head position varies. The action of vestibulo-ocular movements can be appreciated by fixating an object and moving the head from side to side; the eyes automatically compensate for the head movement by moving the same distance but in the opposite direction, thus keeping the image of the object at more or less the same place on the retina. The vestibular system detects brief, transient changes in head position and produces rapid corrective eye movements (see Chapter 14). Sensory information from the semicircular canals directs the eyes to move in a direction opposite to the head movement. While the vestibular system operates effectively to counteract rapid movements of the head, it is relatively insensitive to slow movements or to persistent rotation of the head. For example, if the vestibulo-ocular reflex is tested with continuous rotation and without visual cues about the movement of the image (i.e.,with eyes closed or in the dark), the compensatory eye movements cease after only about 30 seconds of rotation. However, if the same test is performed with visual cues, eye movements persist. The compensatory eye movements in this case are due to the activation of the smooth pursuit system, which relies not on vestibular information but on visual cues indicating motion of the visual field.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK10991


  • Cite this Page
  • Disable Glossary Links

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...