The impact of ME/CFS on visual sensory processing and selective attention

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Researcher

Dr Douglas Barrett

PhD student

Anosha Atlaf

Institution

School of Psychology and Vision Sciences, Leicester University, UK

Start date

October 2023

Funding

ME Research UK

Background

People with ME/CFS often report problems with their vision, including visual overload, difficulties filtering relevant from irrelevant visual information (also called selective attention), and fatigue during visual search.

These problems come under the heading of cognitive deficits because they involve the brain and nervous system, and they are relatively common and have a debilitating effect on individuals’ quality of life. Despite this, very little is known about the way ME/CFS impacts the ability to perceive and prioritise objects and events.

It has also proved challenging to identify reliable markers of these visual deficits, perhaps because individuals’ symptoms vary so widely, or the lack of standardised neuropsychological tests.

This PhD project led by Dr Barrett aims to look at how ME/CFS affects each of these aspects of visual function, and the research will be conducted by PhD student, Anosha Atlaf.

Dr Doug Barrett & Anosha Atlaf

Objectives

The study aims to address three research questions:

  1. How does ME/CFS affect visual sensory processing?
  2. How does ME/CFS affect individuals’ ability to prioritise relevant over irrelevant visual information (selective attention)?
  3. Can carefully controlled tests of selective attention during visual search provide a diagnostic marker of ME/CFS?

In the first stage of the project, 50 patients with ME/CFS and 50 healthy control subjects will undergo visual stimulus tests to measure their responses to sensory inputs.

Further tests will assess their ability to recognise targets from within a group of objects, and will also measure behavioural and eye movement markers, and electrical activity in the brain. The researchers’ hypothesis is that reduced nerve responses will make patients slower and less accurate in responding to visual stimuli.

The findings will be used to develop online tests that can applied to a large sample of ME/CFS patients, to identify ME/CFS-related changes in the speed and accuracy of target detection, and the associations between these objective results and subjective reports of symptom severity and fatigue.

Potential benefits

The results of this study will provide detailed information about the way ME/CFS affects the sensory and cognitive components of an everyday visual task. The researchers intend to make their findings freely available to patients via a dedicated website.

Furthermore, tests of selective attention may help provide potential, non-invasive diagnostic markers of ME/CFS and its severity.

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