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New study reveals midget retinal ganglion cell dendritic and mitochondrial degeneration is an early feature of human glaucoma 

6 February 2020

Retinal ganglion cells in glaucoma patients have smaller structures and fewer mitochondria than non-diseased patients, which is an early feature of human glaucoma. This according to a new study published in the journal Brain Communications. The collaborating research teams at St. Erik Eye Hospital/Karolinska Institutet, Mayo Clinic and Cardiff University, suggest that boosting mitochondrial function therefore may be a viable therapeutic strategy for glaucoma.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness affecting almost 80 million patients worldwide. The disease is characterized by the progressive loss of retinal ganglion cells which leads to visual field loss. 

James Tribble, what is the most important finding in the paper?

En man med brunt hår och randig tröja.
James Tribble. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman
“We compared post-mortem eyes from glaucoma and non-diseased donors and found the first evidence that retinal ganglion cells (the affected cell in glaucoma) had smaller structures and fewer mitochondria. Mitochondria provide cells with energy and this may explain the retinal ganglion cell’s vulnerability in glaucoma,” says James Tribble, postdoctoral researcher at St. Erik Eye Hospital and Karolinska Institutet, one of the researchers behind the study, and continues:

“Importantly we show that these changes occur in areas of retina that had relatively little cell death and loss of vision. These changes are an early feature of human glaucoma and may underlie the progressive nature of cell loss.”

In what way could this study be of importance to glaucoma patients?

“These findings demonstrate that features of disease identified in animal models also occur in human patients. In animal models, boosting mitochondrial function can protect from these changes, suggesting that in glaucoma patients it may also be a viable therapeutic strategy for glaucoma.“

How will you proceed with future studies?

“This work now provides a platform to further investigate mitochondrial and metabolism changes in glaucoma patients. More post-mortem work will be important to identify whether treatments can boost mitochondrial function in human retina and how widespread this is to glaucoma sub-populations.”

Funding for this study was provided by Fight for Sight, the Medical Research Council UK, U.S. National Eye Institute, Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish Research Council.

Text: Helena Mayer


"Midget retinal ganglion cell dendritic and mitochondrial degeneration is an early feature of human glaucoma", James R Tribble, Asta Vasalauskaite, Tony Redmond, Robert D Young, Shoaib Hassan, Michael P Fautsch, Frank Sengpiel, Pete A Williams, James E Morgan, Brain Communications, online 28 November 2019, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/braincomms/fcz035