Purpose: Degenerative retinal diseases, especially retinitis pigmentosa (RP), lead to severe peripheral visual field loss (tunnel vision), which impairs mobility. The lack of peripheral information leads to fewer horizontal eye movements and, thus, diminished scanning in RP patients in a natural environment walking task. This randomized controlled study aimed to improve mobility and the dynamic visual field by applying a compensatory Exploratory Saccadic Training (EST).
Methods: Oculomotor responses during walking and avoiding obstacles in a controlled environment were studied before and after saccade or reading training in 25 RP patients. Eye movements were recorded using a mobile infrared eye tracker (Tobii glasses) that measured a range of spatial and temporal variables. Patients were randomly assigned to two training conditions: Saccade (experimental) and reading (control) training. All subjects who first performed reading training underwent experimental training later (waiting list control group). To assess the effect of training on subjects, we measured performance in the training task and the following outcome variables related to daily life: Response Time (RT) during exploratory saccade training, Percent Preferred Walking Speed (PPWS), the number of collisions with obstacles, eye position variability, fixation duration, and the total number of fixations including the ones in the subjects' blind area of the visual field.
Results: In the saccade training group, RTs on average decreased, while the PPWS significantly increased. The improvement persisted, as tested 6 weeks after the end of the training. On average, the eye movement range of RP patients before and after training was similar to that of healthy observers. In both, the experimental and reading training groups, we found many fixations outside the subjects' seeing visual field before and after training. The average fixation duration was significantly shorter after the training, but only in the experimental training condition.
Conclusions: We conclude that the exploratory saccade training was beneficial for RP patients and resulted in shorter fixation durations after the training. We also found a significant improvement in relative walking speed during navigation in a real-world like controlled environment.