Central oculomotor disturbances and nystagmus: a window into the brainstem and cerebellum

Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011 Mar;108(12):197-204. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0197. Epub 2011 Mar 25.


Background: Oculomotor disturbances and nystagmus are seen in many diseases of the nervous system, the vestibular apparatus, and the eyes, as well as in toxic and metabolic disorders. They often indicate a specific underlying cause. The key to diagnosis is systematic clinical examination of the patient's eye movements. This review deals mainly with central oculomotor disturbances, i.e., those involving smooth pursuit, saccades, gaze-holding, and central types of nystagmus.

Methods: We searched the current literature for relevant publications on the diagnosis and treatment of oculomotor disturbances and nystagmus, and discuss them selectively in this review along with the German Neurological Society's guidelines on the topic.

Results: A detailed knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of eye movements usually enables the physician to localize the disturbance to a specific area in the brainstem or cerebellum. The examination of eye movements is an even more sensitive method than magnetic resonance imaging for the diagnosis of acute vestibular syndromes and for the differentiation of peripheral from central lesions. For example, isolated dysfunction of horizontal saccades is due to a pontine lesion, while isolated dysfunction of vertical saccades is due to a midbrain lesion. Generalized gaze-evoked nystagmus (GEN) has multiple causes; purely vertical GEN is due to a midbrain lesion, while purely horizontal GEN is due to a pontomedullary lesion. Internuclear ophthalmoplegia involves a constellation of findings, the most prominent of which is impaired adduction to the side of the causative lesion in the ipsilateral medial longitudinal fasciculus. The most common pathological types of central nystagmus are downbeat and upbeat nystagmus (DBN, UBN). DBN is generally due to cerebellar dysfunction, e.g., because of a neurodegenerative disease.

Conclusion: This short review focuses on the clinical characteristics, pathophysiology and current treatment of oculomotor disorders and nystagmus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Stem / physiopathology*
  • Cerebellum / physiopathology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Humans
  • Nystagmus, Pathologic / physiopathology*
  • Nystagmus, Pathologic / therapy
  • Ocular Motility Disorders / physiopathology
  • Ocular Motility Disorders / therapy
  • Oculomotor Nerve Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Oculomotor Nerve Diseases / therapy
  • Pursuit, Smooth / physiology
  • Saccades / physiology