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The impact of microsaccades on vision: towards a unified theory of saccadic function

Key Points

  • Our eyes are never still. Even when we attempt to fix our gaze, small ocular motions — generally undetectable to the naked eye — shift our eye position. These eye motions include microsaccades, drift and tremor.

  • Microsaccade research has recently become one of the most active fields in visual, oculomotor and even cognitive neuroscience.

  • The past decade of research has linked microsaccades to perception and determined critical interactions between microsaccade dynamics and cognitive processes, especially in regard to the allocation of attention.

  • Behavioural and physiological evidence indicates that microsaccades and saccades are the same type of eye movement and share a common oculomotor generator. Microsaccades may serve as varied functions during fixation as saccades during exploration.

  • The microsaccadic–saccadic continuum may extend to 'saccadic intrusions' or saccades that intrude or interrupt accurate fixation, which are prevalent in various neurological disorders. Determining how microsaccades are altered in neurological disorders has the potential to inform the pathogenesis of neural disease.

Abstract

When we attempt to fix our gaze, our eyes nevertheless produce so-called 'fixational eye movements', which include microsaccades, drift and tremor. Fixational eye movements thwart neural adaptation to unchanging stimuli and thus prevent and reverse perceptual fading during fixation. Over the past 10 years, microsaccade research has become one of the most active fields in visual, oculomotor and even cognitive neuroscience. The similarities and differences between microsaccades and saccades have been a most intriguing area of study, and the results of this research are leading us towards a unified theory of saccadic and microsaccadic function.

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Figure 1: Microsaccade magnitudes.
Figure 2: Equivalent functional dynamics in microsaccades and saccades.
Figure 3: Microsaccade generation circuit.
Figure 4: Neural responses to microsaccades along the visual pathway.
Figure 5: Perceptual effects of microsaccades.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the Barrow Neurological Foundation (awards to S.M.-C. and S.L.M.) and the National Science Foundation (Awards 0852636 and 1153786 to S.M.-C. and Award 0726113 to S.L.M.).

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Correspondence to Susana Martinez-Conde.

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Glossary

Main sequence

Peak velocities and durations of microsaccades and saccades are parametrically related to microsaccadic and saccadic amplitudes.

Square-wave jerks

(SWJs). Microsaccades that distance the eye from the fixation target, which are shortly followed by microsaccades that return the eye to the target.

Covert attention

Attention that is localized away from the centre of gaze.

Inhibition of return

A stimulus presented at a location attended recently evokes a weaker response than a stimulus presented at a previously unattended location.

Amblyopia

Visual acuity loss that is not attributable to uncorrected refractive error or known pathology. It is generally linked to strabismus and/or with the two eyes having unequal refractive power (that is, anisometropia).

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Martinez-Conde, S., Otero-Millan, J. & Macknik, S. The impact of microsaccades on vision: towards a unified theory of saccadic function. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 83–96 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3405

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