Eye movements in the “Morris Maze” spatial working memory task reveal deficits in strategic planning
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
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Analysis of eye movements can provide insights into processes underlying performance of cognitive tasks. We recorded eye movements in healthy participants and people with idiopathic Parkinson disease during a token foraging task based on the spatial working memory component of the widely used Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery. Participants selected boxes (using a mouse click) to reveal hidden tokens. Tokens were never hidden under a box where one had been found before, such that memory had to be used to guide box selections. A key measure of performance in the task is between search errors (BSEs) in which a box where a token has been found is selected again. Eye movements were found to be most commonly directed toward the next box to be clicked on, but fixations also occurred at rates higher than expected by chance on boxes farther ahead or back along the search path. Looking ahead and looking back in this way was found to correlate negatively with BSEs and was significantly reduced in patients with Parkinson disease. Refixating boxes where tokens had already been found correlated with BSEs and the severity of Parkinson disease symptoms. It is concluded that eye movements can provide an index of cognitive planning in the task. Refixations on locations where a token has been found may also provide a sensitive indicator of visuospatial memory integrity. Eye movement measures derived from the spatial working memory task may prove useful in the assessment of executive functions as well as neurological and psychiatric diseases in the future.