Slowed Saccades and Increased Square Wave Jerks in Essential Tremor

  • George T Gitchel
  • Paul A Wetzel
  • Mark S Baron


Background: Eye movements in essential tremor (ET) are poorly described and may present useful information on the underlying pathophysiology of the disorder.

Methods: Sixty patients with ET, including 15 de novo untreated patients, and 60 age-matched controls constitute the study population. A video-based eye tracker was used to assess binocular eye position. Oculomotor function was assessed while subjects followed random horizontally and vertically step-displaced targets.

Results: For all reflexive saccades, latencies were increased in ET subjects by a mean of 16.3% (p<0.01). Saccades showed reduced peak velocities with a lengthy, wavering velocity plateau, followed by slowed decelerations. For larger 30°+ saccades, peak velocities were decreased by a mean of 25.2% (p<0.01) and durations increased by 31.8% (p<0.01). The frequency of square wave jerks (SWJs) in patients was more than triple that of controls (p<0.0001). Despite frequent interruptions by SWJs, fixations were otherwise stable and indistinguishable from controls (root mean square [RMS] velocity, p = 0.324). The abnormal eye movement parameters were independent of disease duration, tremor severity, and medication therapy.

Discussion: In contrast to normally swift onset and efficient acceleration/deceleration movements, saccades in ET are characterized by abnormally prolonged latencies and slowed velocity profiles. Although ET subjects maintain highly stable fixations, they are interrupted by increased numbers of SWJs. This study reveals novel oculomotor deficits in ET, which are distinct from the eye movement dysfunction of other movement disorders, supporting a role for eye tracking to assist in the differential diagnoses of not only atypical, but also more common movement disorders.