Do people with Parkinson’s disease look at task relevant stimuli when walking? An exploration of eye movements

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Eye movements are impaired by Parkinson’s disease (PD) although limited research has explored if PD affects the relevance of visual fixations when walking. Visual fixations may provide crucial contextual information for safe navigation and important insights into fall risk. This study aimed to: investigate visual fixations made while walking under a range of conditions in PD; identify their task relevance; and explore their relationship with clinical features. Thirty-eight people with mild-moderate PD and forty age-matched control participants completed a straight walk with (i) no additional stimuli and (ii) with additional stimuli (visual cues or a high contrast obstacle), whilst wearing a mobile eye-tracker. Fixations were extracted and classified by location and relevance. PD participants made proportionally fewer task-relevant fixations (floor, walls and additional stimuli ahead), caused by significantly more task-irrelevant fixations (floor, walls and ceiling away from waking path) during normal walking (p = 0.014). These group differences were not apparent with visual cues (p = 0.359). During obstacle crossing trials, PD made significantly more task-relevant fixations than controls (p = 0.007). Reduced bilateral visual acuity was associated with fewer fixations in PD. Our findings suggest that people with PD visually explore complex environments less efficiently likely owing to underlying PD pathology. Visual exploration improved with the addition of salient stimuli (for example visual cues or an obstacle) and thus developing and optimising visual interventions could prove critical to improving locomotor safety and reducing falls risk in home environments.

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