Patients with hemispatial neglect are severely impaired in orienting their attention to contralesional hemispace. Although motion is one of the strongest attentional cues in humans, it is still unknown how neglect patients visually explore their moving real-world environment.
We therefore recorded eye movements at bedside in 19 patients with hemispatial neglect following acute right hemisphere stroke, 14 right-brain damaged patients without neglect and 21 healthy control subjects. Videos of naturalistic real-world scenes were presented first in a free viewing condition together with static images, and subsequently in a visual search condition. We analyzed number and amplitude of saccades, fixation durations and horizontal fixation distributions. Novel computational tools allowed us to assess the impact of different scene features (static and dynamic contrast, colour, brightness) on patients' gaze.
Independent of the different stimulus conditions, neglect patients showed decreased numbers of fixations in contralesional hemispace (ipsilesional fixation bias) and increased fixation durations in ipsilesional hemispace (disengagement deficit). However, in videos left-hemifield fixations of neglect patients landed on regions with particularly high dynamic contrast. Furthermore, dynamic scenes with few salient objects led to a significant reduction of the pathological ipsilesional fixation bias. In visual search, moving targets in the neglected hemifield were more frequently detected than stationary ones. The top-down influence (search instruction) could neither reduce the ipsilesional fixation bias nor the impact of bottom-up features.
Our results provide evidence for a strong impact of dynamic bottom-up features on neglect patients' scanning behaviour. They support the neglect model of an attentional priority map in the brain being imbalanced towards ipsilesional hemispace, which can be counterbalanced by strong contralateral motion cues. Taking into account the lack of top-down control in neglect patients, bottom-up stimulation with moving real-world stimuli may be a promising candidate for future neglect rehabilitation schemes.