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Disconjugate vertical ocular movement in a patient with locked-in syndrome
  1. Department of Neurology, Boramae City Hospital, Korea
  2. Samsung Medical Center, Korea
  3. Seoul National University Hospital, Clinical Research Institute, Seoul, Korea
  1. DUK L NA
  1. Department of Neurology, Boramae City Hospital, Korea
  2. Samsung Medical Center, Korea
  3. Seoul National University Hospital, Clinical Research Institute, Seoul, Korea
  1. Department of Neurology, Boramae City Hospital, Korea
  2. Samsung Medical Center, Korea
  3. Seoul National University Hospital, Clinical Research Institute, Seoul, Korea
  1. kimmanho{at}

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Editor,—Locked-in syndrome is a rare paralytic state in which voluntary movements are affected. This uncommon de-efferent state results in quadriplegia, loss of gestural or vocal communication with a defect in horizontal eye movements. However, consciousness and vertical eye movements are spared, which enable the patient to communicate by way of ocular movement, either conjugate upward or downward.

Here, we report an unusual case of locked-in syndrome presenting disconjugate vertical and torsional ocular movement, mimicking seesaw nystagmus (SSN).


A 30 year old man was brought to the emergency room. He was unable to move his extremities at all. Verbal communication was not possible because he could not speak. Increased deep tendon reflex with bilateral extensor toe signs were noted. He could open his eyes. Visual acuity was uncheckable. Visual field appeared to be normal by a threatening test. Pupil size was equal and light reflex was prompt. Funduscopic examination did not show any remarkable findings.

On command, he showed conjugate vertical eye movements but he could not make horizontal gaze. Instead, full conjugate horizontal leftward deviation was obtained with cold water irrigation in the left ear, but nystagmus to the opposite direction was absent. Caloric stimulation on the right ear was not performed because eardrum perforation was suspected. Doll's eye manoeuvre showed full range of horizontal eye movements except for the adduction of the left eye, presumably due to left internuclear ophthalmoplegia. Convergence for near target was not possible. When the patient was asked to look to the right side, the right eye moved upward with intorsion, and at the same time, left eye moved downward and extorsion. It appeared to be a half cycle of SSN. When the patient was asked to look to the left side, the reverse half cycle of SSN was observed—the left eye moved upward with intorsion whereas right eye moved downward with extorsion. Horizontal gaze was limited, although there seemed to be minimal movement. The eyes that moved upward didn't cross above the midline (Fig 1A, B).

Figure 1

(A) and (B) show disconjugate vertical and torsional eye movement when the patient is asked to look to one side (direction of arrow). Horizontal gaze and upward movement above the midline are limited. (C) Axial T2 weighted magnetic resonance imaging shows a high signal intensity in pons (arrows) due to infarction.

In addition to the above findings, intermittent irregular jerky eye movements were detected. These also consisted of elevation with intorsion of one eye and synchronous depression and extorsion of the other eye. They appeared in a clustered pattern containing four to five cycles of SSN, beating at between 0.5 and 1 Hz. Whether this phenomenon was purely voluntary or involuntary was not confirmed. It had persisted for 1 month. Brain MRI revealed an extensive infarct in the ventral pons (Fig 1C).


We report an unusual non-concomitant vertical and torsional eye movements with a large brainstem infarction that rendered him “locked-in”. The main finding was intermittent disconjugate vertical eye movement with rising and intorting on one side while falling and extorting on the opposite side. It appeared to be SSN but it has not been previously reported in locked-in syndrome. Unlike the previously reported SSN cases, the half cycle of SSN was also induced when the patient attempted to look to the side.

Studies on SSN have suggested that interstitial nucleus of Cajal (INC) mediate this phenomenon. The INC, a centre of integration of vertical and torsional eye movements, has extensive rostral and caudal connections.12 It receives ipsilateral input from the frontal cortex through the zona incerta, and contralateral input from the deep cerebellar nuclei and pretectum. The INC itself sends outputs to the ocular motor nuclei, the ipsilateral medial vestibular nucleus, and the contralateral INC. In animal experiments, stimulation near the INC3 or stimulation of semicircular canals45 produced one half cycle of SSN. The underlying mechanism for a half cycle of SSN in our patient is not known. Horizontal conjugate deviation by cold caloric stimulation or oculocephalic reflex did not produce SSN, suggesting a vestibular mechanism may not explain SSN in this patient. Instead, we suggest that supranuclear control for horizontal gaze inappropriately sends signals to the INC, but a disturbance of neural integration in the INC may be responsible for the development of SSN.67


This article is supported by grant no 01-1999-085-0 from the Seoul National University Hospital Research Fund.


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