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Microsaccades are a kind of fixational eye movement. They are small, jerk-like, involuntary eye movements, similar to miniature versions of voluntary saccades. They typically occur during prolonged visual fixation (of at least several seconds), not only in humans, but also in other animals, especially those with foveal vision (primates, cats, etc.). Microsaccade amplitudes vary from 2 to 120 arcminutes.
The role of microsaccades in visual perception has been a highly debated topic which is still largely unresolved. It has been proposed that microsaccades correct displacements in eye position produced by drifts, although non-corrective microsaccades also occur. Microsaccades were also believed to prevent the retinal image from fading, but they do not occur often enough for that purpose, considering that perfectly stabilized images can disappear from perception in a few seconds or less. The current consensus is that all fixational eye movements are important for the maintenance of visibility.
Experiments in neurophysiology from different laboratories showed that fixational eye movements, particularly microsaccades, strongly modulate the activity of neurons in the visual areas of the macaque brain. In the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) and the primary visual cortex (V1), microsaccades can move a stationary stimulus in and out of a neuron's receptive field, thereby producing transient neural responses. Microsaccades might account for much of the response variability of neurons in visual area V1 of the awake monkey.
- R. H. S. Carpenter. Movements of the Eyes (Pion, London, 1988).
- Susana Martinez-Conde, Stephen L. Macknik & David H. Hubel. The role of fixational eye movements in visual perception. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5(3):229-240 (2004). doi:10.1038/nrn1348
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