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By Mike Murphy
A recent University of Toronto study has shed new light on the eye disease glaucoma and may help prevent future patients from ending up in the dark.
Yeni Yucel, neuropathologist at U of T who led the research, said the three-year study's major finding was that glaucoma attacks not only nerve cells in the eye, but also similar cells in the brain.
"We studied the relationship between damage to the optic nerve and damage to brain cells," Yucel said. "Nerve cells can communicate with each other. So when one is affected others can be affected as well."
Yucel explained glaucoma patients gradually lose peripheral vision and can eventually lose sight entirely. "It's a slow, progressive disease," he said.
Neeru Gupta, co-author of the study, said the team's conclusions could have significant implications for the investigation and treatment of glaucoma.
"We're very excited about the results of the study because it's changed the way we'll look at the disease and look at treating it," she said.
"What this study tells us is that it's not just nerve cells in the eye that we're losing, but we're losing cells in the brain too," she added. "So we have to treat nerve cells both in the eye and the brain."
Gupta said discovering that glaucoma damage occurs in the brain suggested that drugs used to combat neurological diseases might be profitably deployed against eye disease. Currently, she said, glaucoma is treated with either eye medication or, in more severe cases, surgery.
Gupta said another study is now underway to test the efficacy of brain-targeting drugs in combating the disease. "We'll be looking at a number of candidate neuroprotective drugs that rescue both nerve cells in the eye and the brain centres that control vision," she said.
David Tingey, an ophthalmologist at the Ivey Institute of Ophthalmology, said the results of the study did not surprise him.
"I don't view this as shocking at all," he said. "We view glaucoma as loss of nerve cells in the eye. These cells have long tails that go into the brain. It does make sense that if these cells are dying, then the cells they send information to would be damaged too."
Tingey added the Ivey Institute would participate in the study to determine whether neuroprotective drugs could be useful in the fight against glaucoma. "It may be a dead end or it may be worthwhile," he said.
Yucel agreed it was useless to speculate on the promise of such treatment until the study had been completed. "I think the clinical trial will answer all these questions in an objective fashion," he stated.