By Adrian Galbreth
For years, glaucoma has been considered one of the most common and severe of all eye disorders, affecting millions of people around the world, but new research has questioned whether it can actually be classed as an eye disorder at all.
According to a new report in Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, top researchers no longer think of glaucoma solely as an eye disease.
Rather, they view it as a neurological disorder that causes nerve cells in the brain to degenerate and die, similar to what occurs in sufferers of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.
Led by Dr Jeffrey L Goldberg, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, the specialist stated that this new means of viewing glaucoma is resulting in brain-based treatment advances that could ultimately eliminate the disease.
Dr Goldberg says that treatment advances that are either being tested in patients or are scheduled to begin clinical trials soon could help to combat the condition, which is the most common cause of irreversible blindness worldwide.
The new study focuses on the damage that occurs in a type of nerve cell called retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are vital to the ability to see and connect the eye to the brain through the optic nerve.
Current RGC-targeted treatments for glaucoma in the clinical trial stage range from medications injected into the eye that deliver survival and growth factors to RGCs, to drugs known to be useful for stroke and Alzheimer's, such as cytidine-5-diphosphocholine, and even electrical stimulation of RGCs, which can be delivered via tiny electrodes implanted in contact lenses.
According to Dr Goldberg, researchers turning their attention to the mechanisms that cause RGCs to degenerate and die are discovering ways to protect, enhance and even regenerate the vital cells.
"Understanding how to prevent damage and improve healthy function in these neurons may ultimately lead to sight-saving treatments for glaucoma and other degenerative eye diseases," he explained.
Experts now hope that their exploration of RGCs will help them determine what factors, such as genetics, make some people more vulnerable to glaucoma than others.
by Alexa Kaczka