Visual fixation is a dynamic process, with the spontaneous occurrence of microsaccades and macrosaccades. These fixational saccades are sensitive to the structural and functional alterations of the cortical-subcortical-cerebellar circuit. Given that dysfunctional cortical-subcortical-cerebellar circuit contributes to cognitive and behavioral impairments in schizophrenia, we hypothesized that patients with schizophrenia would exhibit abnormal fixational saccades and these abnormalities would be associated with the clinical manifestations.
Saccades were recorded from 140 drug-naïve patients with first-episode schizophrenia and 160 age-matched healthy controls during ten separate trials of 6-second steady fixations. Positive and negative symptoms were assessed using the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale (PANSS). Cognition was assessed using the Measurement and Treatment Research to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia Consensus Cognitive Battery (MCCB).
Patients with schizophrenia exhibited fixational saccades more vertically than controls, which was reflected in more vertical saccades with angles around 90° and a greater vertical shift of horizontal saccades with angles around 0° in patients. The fixational saccades, especially horizontal saccades, showed longer durations, faster peak velocities, and larger amplitudes in patients. Furthermore, the greater vertical shift of horizontal saccades was associated with higher PANSS total and positive symptom scores in patients, and the longer duration of horizontal saccades was associated with lower MCCB neurocognitive composite, attention/vigilance, and speed of processing scores. Finally, based solely on these fixational eye movements, a K-nearest neighbors model classified patients with an accuracy of 85%. Conclusions: Our results reveal spatial and temporal abnormalities of fixational saccades and suggest fixational saccades as a promising biomarker for cognitive and positive symptoms and for diagnosis of schizophrenia.