Age-related effects of increasing postural challenge on eye movement onset latencies to visual targets
When a single light cue is given in the visual field, our eyes orient towards it with an average latency of 200 ms. If a second cue is presented at or around the time of the response to the first, a secondary eye movement occurs that represents a reorientation to the new target. While studies have shown that eye movement latencies to 'single-step' targets may or may not be lengthened with age, secondary eye movements (during 'double-step' displacements) are significantly delayed with increasing age. The aim of this study was to investigate whether the postural challenge posed simply by standing (as opposed to sitting) results in significantly longer eye movement latencies in older adults compared to the young. Ten young (<35 >years) and 10 older healthy adults (>65 years) participated in the study. They were required to fixate upon a central target and move their eyes in response to 2 types of stimuli: (1) a single-step perturbation of target position either 15° to the right or left and (2) a double-step target displacement incorporating an initial target jump to the right or left by 15°, followed after 200 ms, by a shift of target position to the opposite side (e.g. +15° then −15°). All target displacement conditions were executed in sit and stand positions with the participant at the same distance from the targets. Eye movements were recorded using electro-oculography. Older adults did not show significantly longer eye movement latencies than the younger adults for single-step target displacements, and postural configuration (stand compared to sit) had no effect upon latencies for either group. We categorised double-step trials into those during which the second light changed after or before the onset of the eye shift to the first light. For the former category, young participants showed faster secondary eye shifts to the second light in the standing position, while the older adults did not. For the latter category of double-step trial, young participants showed no significant difference between sit and stand secondary eye movement latencies, but older adults were significantly longer standing compared to sitting. The older adults were significantly longer than the younger adults across both postural conditions, regardless of when the second light change occurred during the eye shift to the first light. We suggest that older adults require greater time and perhaps attentional processes to execute eye movements to unexpected changes in target position when faced with the need to maintain standing balance.