Why use a mirror to assess visual pursuit in prolonged disorders of consciousness? Evidence from healthy control participants

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Evidence of reliable smooth visual pursuit is crucial for both diagnosis and prognosis in prolonged disorders of consciousness (PDOC). However, a mirror is more likely than an object to elicit evidence of smooth pursuit. Our objective was to identify the physiological and/or cognitive mechanism underlying the mirror benefit.

We recorded eye-movements while healthy participants simultaneously completed a visual pursuit task and a cognitively demanding two-back task. We manipulated the stimulus to be pursued (two levels: mirror, ball) and the simultaneous cognitive load (pursuit only, pursuit plus two-back task) within subjects.

Pursuit of the reflected-own-face in the mirror was associated with briefer fixations that occurred less uniformly across the horizontal plane relative to object pursuit. Secondary task performance did not differ between pursuit stimuli. The secondary task also did not affect eye movement measures, nor did it interact with pursuit stimulus.

Reflected-own-face pursuit is no less cognitively demanding than object pursuit, but it naturally elicits smoother eye movements (i.e. briefer pauses to fixate). A mirror therefore provides greater sensitivity to detect smooth visual pursuit in PDOC because the naturally smoother eye movements may be identified more confidently by the assessor.


Original languageEnglish
Article number14
JournalBMC Neurology
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2017


  • Brain injuries, Consciousness disorders, Diagnosis, Smooth pursuit