New research opens a window on eye health
Poets see the eyes as a window to the soul. Scientists increasingly view the eyes as a window to the inner workings of the body.
And early vision loss, according to Western researchers, could be a predictor, and precursor, of other ailments that may appear later in life. For an aging population facing vision-related diseases, like macular degeneration and glaucoma, that’s good news.
“If retinal cells are lost, you can’t treat them,” said Kathleen Hill, a professor in the Department of Biology at Western. “But we’ve learned eye function in mice starts to deteriorate before the structure does. That means there may be a therapeutic window of opportunity where we can treat cells to compensate for their inability to function properly.”
And while early detection of vision loss improves potential for treatment, research indicates it can also provide insight into the brain and potential development of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. With these diseases, the progressive death of nerve cells causes problems with movement or mental functioning.
“Our research is an important first step in understanding neurodegenerative diseases and developing a framework for diagnostic and intervention strategies,” Hill said.
Electroretinography reveals functional deficits before neurons in the retina are lost.
When mitochondria – tiny packages of enzymes that make the energy to power cells in every part of the body – fail due to genetic or environmental factors, less energy is generated within the cell, which can lead to cell death, and even organ failure.
“Retinal cells require lots of energy, for both their basic function and to constantly rebuild the underlying structure,” explained Hill. “The cells are like a factory going all out, all the time.”
What happens when there’s not enough energy to power both types of production? Hill has been looking to answer this question with research on the harlequin mouse, a species that has a mutation which helps it mimic signs of aging in the human eye.