Deviations of the subjective visual vertical in the roll or fronto-parallel plane occur commonly in disorders of the brainstem and have been extensively explored. In contrast, little is known about deviations in other directions. The present retrospective study focused on deviations in the pitch (sagittal) direction in 176 patients with a wide variety of disorders. The test task was to set a self-illuminated rod in the apparent upright position, in total darkness. Abnormal results (outside ± 4°) were recorded in 58% of the subjects. Negative (top backward) deviations were the most common, particularly with mass lesions in the pineal region, obstructive hydrocephalus, cerebellar lesions and crowding at the craniocervical junction. Positive and negative deviations were about equally common with focal intra-axial lesions. Negative deviations appeared related to dorsal locations of lesions and vice versa. Normal pressure hydrocephalus, Parkinson's disease and progressive supranuclear palsy were associated with smaller deviations, without a clear directional preponderance, and a larger individual variability. Most subjects lacked overt clinical corollaries. The most common ocular signs were aqueduct syndromes (n = 17) and ocular tilt reactions (n = 12), which were associated with deviations in 47 and 92% of instances, respectively. Subjective corollaries of deviation were never reported, not even by those subjects who showed a dramatic improvement upon resolution of the underlying condition. Deviations were also assessed in roll in a subgroup of 40 patients with focal lesions. Thirty subjects returned abnormal results: 13% in roll, 47% in pitch and 40% in pitch and roll. The direction of roll deviation appeared primarily related to laterality, with clockwise deviations with right-sided lesions and vice versa. All subjects with ocular tilt reactions had combined pitch and roll deviations, implying a common neural substrate. Correlation analyses, geometrical modelling and experimental self-observations indicated that deviations in pitch were attributable to cyclotorsional asymmetries between the eyes. The frequent co-existence of abnormal pitch and roll results implies that the true axis of deviation in focal brainstem disorders commonly falls outside traditional reference planes. The term 'visual upright in three dimensions' is suggested to identify unrestricted measurements, preserving the established term 'visual vertical' for measurements confined to the roll plane. Assessment of the visual upright in three dimensions provides a new, quantitative angle on brainstem disorders. The test appears useful for identifying a ubiquitous yet clinically silent feature of brainstem disease and also for monitoring the evolution of underlying conditions. More detailed explorations appear well motivated.
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