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New Research Reveals Unexpected Biological Pathway In Glaucoma

January 5, 2011

Adapted from the Kennedy Krieger Institute

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute and four collaborating institutions identified a new and unexpected biological pathway that appears to contribute to the development of glaucoma and its resulting vision loss.

Prior research has suggested that the optic nerve head, the point where the cables that carry information from the eye to the brain first exit the eye, plays a role in glaucoma. In this study, researchers report a series of findings that offer novel insights into cellular and molecular mechanisms operating at the optic nerve head in two mouse models of glaucoma. Most notably, they discovered that at a specific location within the optic nerve head, there is a unique class of cells called astrocytes that demonstrate properties that appear to make them a critical factor in the visual blinding that occurs in glaucoma.

Further, at this same site, researchers found abnormal forms of a protein called gamma synuclein that is similar to abnormal forms of alpha synuclein, a related protein known for its key role in cell loss in Parkinson's disease. The findings suggest that a biological process similar to Parkinson's disease unfolds in glaucoma at the specific anatomical location pinpointed in this study for the first time.

Finally, researchers discovered that at this anatomical location, there is a surprising process whereby astrocytes remove the debris of neurons, the cells that die in neurodegenerative disorders such as glaucoma. It is likely that this newly discovered process involving removal of the debris of one cell by a neighboring cell is important not only in glaucoma and Parkinson's disease, but also for many neurodegenerative diseases.

“These findings are very exciting because they give us several novel targets for future interventions,” said Dr. Nicholas Marsh-Armstrong, senior study author and a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute. “I believe these findings put us on the cusp of discovering a treatment for glaucoma that may also have relevance for a number of other neurodegenerative diseases.”

Future studies will examine this novel pathway and molecular/cellular mechanism to understand precisely what steps go awry in glaucoma and what can be controlled pharmacologically to identify interventions that slow the disease progression.

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Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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