Background: Impaired processing of faces in patients with schizophrenia may underlie aspects of disturbance in their social interaction. This study examined patterns of eye fixation in subjects with schizophrenia and non-psychiatric controls, while processing a high resolution picture of a neutral face and a nonbiological complex geometric stimulus.
Methods: Ten-second sequences of eye movement were recorded video-oculographically (50 samples/sec) while subjects were "free-viewing" the stimuli. An essential element of the study was customized software that ensured stimulus presentation on a video display only after subjects were fixated upon a centre-screen cue, so that all subjects began stimulus processing from the same point.
Results: Compared with the control group, subjects with schizophrenia exhibited reduced scanpath lengths and a tendency toward fewer fixations for the face stimulus. They also showed an initial relative right spatial hemineglect (for the first voluntary fixation) when viewing the Rey figure, but not when viewing the face stimulus. Overall, there were no significant differences between the schizophrenia and control groups in the lateral distribution of subsequent fixations for either stimulus.
Conclusions: Disturbed spatial and temporal patterns of eye movement in some people with schizophrenia may reflect sub-optimal processing of face stimuli, that may predispose these individuals to dysfunctional interpretation of facial communication cues.