Children with 'wobbly eye' disorder struggle to recognise faces

Jay Self with patient in clinic

A new Southampton-led study indicates that children with the eye movement disorder nystagmus may have greater difficulty recognising faces than other things, providing evidence for developing better diagnostics and support.

Combining care and research to tackle big impacts

Nystagmus, also known as ‘wobbly eye’ is characterised by involuntary to-and-fro eye movements and affects about one in 1,500 people in the UK. Often present form an early age, it makes it harder to follow moving objects or read, and has significant impacts on a child’s social interactions.

Researcher and consultant ophthalmologist Mr Jay Self is working to improve understanding and management of the condition, running one of only three nystagmus clinics in the UK through our NIHR Wellcome Trust Southampton Clinical Research Facility, combining care with research.

Tracking eye movements

Jay’s latest study in collaboration with colleagues in Cardiff and Plymouth investigated nystagmus’ social impacts, comparing how children with and without nystagmus look at peoples’ faces using an infrared eye-tracking device.       

The children were shown two different images on a computer screen at the same time, whilst the specialist Eyelink 1000 Plus analyser used infrared light reflected from the cornea of their eye to measure the time spent looking at each image.

The study was carried out by medical student Shinn Tan, in collaboration with the psychology team at the University of Southampton, and was funded by the Nystagmus Network. 

Better tests, better support

When presented with a black and white checkerboard pattern and a plain grey panel, all children spent longer looking at the more interesting checkerboard, as expected.

However, when shown photos of their own mother and another woman, children without nystagmus spent longer looking at their mother, whilst those with nystagmus looked at both faces for the same length of time.

The results indicate that children with nystagmus may have specific difficulty recognising faces, or adopt different ways of looking at faces - something rarely detected by standard eye tests. These findings could provide the basis of a more accurate diagnosis of nystagmus severity and measure of trial treatments’ efficacy, as well as improved social support and understanding for children with nystagmus.