Acquired Supranuclear Ocular Motor Paresis

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 by Aroucha Vickers, DO on April 24, 2023.

Disease Entity

Acquired Supranuclear Ocular Motor Paresis


Acquired Supranuclear Ocular Motor Paresis (ASOMP) is a condition characterized by a bilateral, symmetric supranuclear ophthalmoplegia. There may be limitation of voluntary saccade but preserved smooth pursuit, vestibulo-ocular response (VOR), and slow phase optokinetic nystagmus1. The ophthalmoplegia is often global and multidirectional but can be horizontal, vertical or both. Cardiovascular surgery is the most commonly documented risk factor for development of ASOMP2,3,4. Associated symptoms of ASOMP may include other neurologic dysfunction (e.g., gait and/or speech ataxia5, weakness, dysphagia6, or emotional lability7).


There are no published figures estimating the prevalence or incidence of ASOMP, but it is considered to be very rare.


While the exact mechanism of ASOMP is not well understood, prolonged cardiopulmonary bypass time and hypothermia during cardiovascular surgery have been postulated as possible risk factors in the development of ASOMP2. However, no structural correlate has been identified despite serial imaging studies in patients with ASOMP, although injury is postulated to the perineuronal network from occult microbleeds8 or microemboli.

Risk Factors

Cardiopulmonary bypass and deep, prolonged hypothermia associated with cardiovascular surgery are the most well-described and classical proposed risk factors for development of ASOMP. However, use of metrics like circulatory arrest or cardiopulmonary bypass times as predictors of development of ASOMP has been limited2. Development of supranuclear ophthalmoplegia has also been documented after less invasive procedures like coronary artery angiography.9


It has been proposed that ASOMP may be due to injury of excitatory burst neurons (EBN) or omnipause neurons (OPN) 1,10At rest, OPNs of the pontine reticular formation project to and inhibit EBNs10. While EBNs responsible for horizontal saccade are located in the caudal pons, EBNs controlling vertical and torsional saccade are located in the rostral interstitial nucleus of the medial longitudinal fasciculus (riMLF)11. Therefore, injury to EBNs or OPNs could produce a selective horizontal or vertical saccadic palsy seen in ASOMP. However, more recent work has shown histologically normal OPN and EBN in postmortem tissue of patients with ASOMP12,13. Further, degeneration of perineuronal net (PNN) structures in vitro has also been proposed as a characteristically pathologic feature of ASOMP12, though this hypothesis remains untested in vivo. Further, the mechanism of insult to these extracellular membrane structures remains poorly understood, though some have hypothesized that EBNs and OPNs may be especially susceptible to hypoxemic-ischemic insult because of their high firing rates and elevated metabolic demand13. Because the riMLF receives supply from the posterior thalamo-subthalamic paramedian artery (a branch of the posterior cerebral artery)14, embolization or microbleed of this vasculature after cardiac surgery might lead to ASOMP.

However, to date, no lesion that can fully explain the clinical features has been identified in serial imaging studies in ASOMP patients. However, the presumed localization has been the thalamo-mesocephalic junction because clinical findings of preserved motility with the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) are suggestive of a supranuclear limitation.


Signs & Symptoms

Patients with ASOMP classically present with a history of acute, bilateral, symmetric, painless, and global ophthalmoplegia immediately following or within days after cardiovascular surgery. Most characteristically, initiation of saccade is limited or abolished while smooth pursuit and slow phase optokinetic nystagmus may be preserved. Patients with ASOMP may also have gait ataxia, dysphagia or ataxic dysarthria, and delayed-onset seizure13.

Physical Examination

ASOMP classically presents on examination with little to no movement on attempted saccades, particularly with vertical gaze. However, pursuit and tracking using the vestibular-ocular reflex are often preserved. The finding of vertical saccadic palsy with preserved pursuit implies that the injury in ASOMP is located superior to the cranial nerve nuclei responsible for vertical gaze and motility. Thus, ASOMP is a so-called “supranuclear” gaze palsy. In contrast to the pathways used in generating saccades, smooth pursuit impairment has been linked instead to lesions of the basis pontis, with slight involvement of extrapontine structures15.

Because of its low incidence, ASOMP may be difficult to diagnose. Thus, awareness of ASOMP is an initial step to guide providers toward correct diagnosis and prompt care. Clinical features of differentially affected saccade with preserved pursuit, negative or nonspecific imaging study findings, and history of cardiovascular surgery form characteristic signs that should lead clinicians to suspect ASOMP.

Diagnostic Procedures & Laboratory Tests

Neuroimaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to exclude other structural causes of gaze paresis but typically the brain MRI in ASOMP are normal or show only nonspecific findings5. However, one fluoro-deoxy-glucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) study found diffuse and profound glucose hypometabolism16. Orbital ultrasound may also be useful in excluding muscular etiologies of gaze palsy. However, history and systematic testing of saccades form the cornerstone for diagnosis of ASOMP, and laboratory testing is usually not needed.

Differential Diagnosis

The differential diagnosis for ASOMP includes Parinaud/dorsal midbrain syndrome, Niemann-Pick Disease Type C, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), and Cortico-Basal Syndrome (CBS). However, the acute onset of ASOMP with negative MRI in the setting of prior cardiac surgery is almost always sufficient to make the diagnosis. Clinically, the absence of convergence retraction nystagmus and light-near dissociation is helpful in differentiating ASOMP from Parinaud Syndrome. Bilateral lid retraction and a preference for downward gaze (“setting sun” sign) have also been documented in Parinaud Syndrome and not ASOMP. Neuroimaging with MRI classically shows a dorsal midbrain lesion in Parinaud Syndrome not present in ASOMP.

While the natural history of ASOMP is that of slow improvement after injury, PSP and CBS are characterized by progressive development. Niemann-Pick Disease may present with variable age and severity. Like ASOMP, Parinaud Syndrome can develop after an acute injury and thus a negative MRI is typically required to make the diagnosis of ASOMP.


Primary Prevention

Because ASOMP is such a rare complication of cardiac surgery, there are no studies on prevention of ASOMP in the English literature. However, incidence of stroke after traditional repair of Stanford type A aortic dissection has been estimated to be as high as 20%, and this statistic has remained largely unchanged for the last 20 years.17 While it remains completely unstudied, if ASOMP is linked to microembolic etiologies, as with stroke, then the use of novel intravascular embolic protection devices (e.g. EmboShield) during cardiovascular surgery could theoretically reduce risk of ASOMP development.

Because ASOMP is classically acquired after cardiovascular surgery, preventative care for ASOMP should target vasculopathic risk factors like hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and atherosclerosis. Specifically, smoking cessation, diet counseling, and lifestyle interventions would decrease the incidence of disease requiring cardiac surgery and therefore the incidence of ASOMP.

Medical Therapy

The mainstay of care of ASOMP after cardiac surgery is rehabilitative therapy. Visual rehabilitation may include training the patient to use a head thrust to generate a doll’s head maneuver similar to the compensatory head thrusts of children with congenital ocular motor apraxia (COMA). This maneuver can be used to generate the vestibular ocular reflex to “drag” the eyes to a target, thus effectively achieving the same result as a saccade would. An example of the head thrust used in cases of COMA or ASOMP can be seen at the following link.

Rehabilitation of patients with ASOMP may also show marked improvement with proprioceptive input. Full pursuit of the patient’s own hand but not other pursuit targets has been documented in ASOMP.

With proper therapy, patients are noted to improve significantly over years of care. Notably, complete recovery of a patient with ASOMP has been described after therapy using vestibular stimulation with cold water injection into the external auditory canal18. While neither have been studied, magnetic or electrode stimulation could also be promising. Optimal management of ASOMP includes not only care for ocular motor complaints but also interdisciplinary management involving physio-, speech, or cognitive therapy for any other limitations from stroke associated with cardiovascular surgery.

Medical Follow Up

Though ASOMP is a defect that presents with oculomotor limitation, longitudinal follow-up with repeat visual field and OCT are helpful in tracking changes in vision, if any. However, the mainstay of care for patients with ASOMP should be consistent rehabilitative orthoptic exercise with vestibular stimulation.


There is no surgical intervention for ASOMP.


In patients with ASOMP after cardiovascular surgery, progression and further complications are not common.


The natural history of ASOMP is slow improvement of the saccadic palsy. However, extent of improvement may be dependent on rehabilitation technique and frequency.


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