The Eyes and Mental Illness

Irregularities in the eye movements of mental health patients may help diagnose disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and autism.

By Dan Schulman, published on September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

According to a popular adage, the eyes are the window
to the soul. But the eyes may also help diagnose mental disorders such as
schizophrenia, depression and autism, according to researchers at the University of
Illinois at Chicago.

Researchers have long reported irregularities in the eye movements
of patients with mental disorders. Patients with autism have difficulty
maintaining eye contact with others. Schizophrenics are often unable to
keep their eyes focused on slow-moving objects. These abnormalities,
researchers say, reflect defects in the neural circuitry of the
brain—defects that are well documented but as yet poorly

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, John Sweeney,
director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine in UIC's department of
psychiatry, and his colleagues are spearheading a research initiative to
study and catalog eye movement patterns in patients with psychiatric

In these experiments, test subjects with maladies ranging from
severe brain trauma to bipolar disorder undergo a battery of visual
tests. They wear infrared glasses linked to a computer that measures and
records subtle eye movements. Similar tests, administered to the
participants in an MRI scanner, allow the researchers to monitor brain
function associated with eye movement and pinpoint inconsistencies.
Sweeney says noting parallels in abnormal eye movement and brain activity
"gives us an objective way of evaluating patients and treatment response
that clinical evaluations, while crucial, can't provide." This line of
research may also help identify at-risk individuals before the onset of
mental illness.