A new study put out by the University of Rochester Medical Center details a brand new way for eye doctors to look at a patient's retinae. This non-invasive assessment tool may be the key to early detection of one of the most common eye diseases in the world: glaucoma.
Researchers in this study focused on looking at the eye's retinae, especially the "retinal ganglion cells" (RGCs). These RGCs are extremely important in transporting visual data to the brain.
Scientists have known for a while now that the death of RGCs leads to vision loss problems like glaucoma. Currently, glaucoma is the second most prevalent cause of blindness in the world. RGCs are extremely hard to capture on any detection technology because they are all transparent.
The team of researchers at the University of Rochester used a modified version of the eye screening technology called confocal adaptive optics scanning light ophthalmoscopy (AOSLO) to capture better images of RGCs. They took these images from animals, human patients with normal vision, and human patients with age-related macular degeneration.
Researchers soon discovered their images not only captured the RGCs, but they also the cells' inner bodies. The professors were able to tell where the nuclei were in each of these RGCs.
Armed with this data, researchers believe they can detect glaucoma before the nerve fibers get too thin. They believe the future of glaucoma prevention will be examining how RGC cell bodies change in terms of size and structure over time.
Today, eye doctors diagnose glaucoma by looking at how thick nerve fibers in the eyes are. These nerve fibers carry RGC signals from the eyes to the brain. Unfortunately, by the time a doctor can see a significant change in the nerve fibers' thickness, an estimated 100,000 RGCs have already died. Considering each eye only has around 1.2 million RGCs, the loss of 100,000 is a big deal.
Besides looking into RGCs, researchers note that this technique can be used to analyze other aspects of the eyes. For example, researchers looked briefly into cone photoreceptors, which are often the first cells to die out before age-related macular degeneration sets in. Researchers discovered that they could access the health of the cone photoreceptors extremely well using their modified AOSLO technology.
If this new AOSLO technology can properly evaluate both RGCs and cone photoreceptors, then it could potentially be able to scan all translucent cell classes and structures in the eye.
Although this data is exciting for the future of eye care, researchers remind readers that this study was the first of its kind and only a small number of patients were examined. Researchers are now calling for more research facilities to try out this technology and increase confidence in these findings within the scientific community.
The head researchers on this study were David Williams and William G. Allyn, both of whom work at the University of Rochester. This study was published in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was entitled "Imaging Individual Neurons in the Retinal Ganglion Cell Layer of the Living Eye."