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Catalyst for a Cure: Glaucoma and the Brain

Catalyst for a Cure is a major collaborative effort redefining how glaucoma research is conducted. This video summarizes an important recent discovery about the brain's involvement in glaucoma.

Video Transcript

Philip Horner, PhD: Now this paper asked whether or not the brain is involved; it’s an important question. So if you look at the connections in the brain, here all the green you see are the ganglion cells’ processes, and this tracer that you see, all the green, is showing you whether they are functionally connected back in the brain. This is a healthy brain, and this is following glaucoma, and you can see there is this big section that’s no longer green.

That experiment comes about from just looking at an old problem in a new way. It's actually a simple concept. Until this time, most people had looked at the cells in the retina and asked whether they looked sick or not, and maybe the process in the optic nerve, so their nearest or most proximal process. And what that experiment did, from the Calkins laboratory, was to really ask, that process of the ganglion cells, as it actually connects in the brain, how does that process behave? So it's simply asking the reverse. It's labeling the cell in the retina and asking how it interacts, does it functionally interact, in the brain.

And the surprising finding from that relatively simple concept is that the entire visual pathway is involved in glaucoma, relatively early in the disease. So it's not necessarily a disease in which you can think of it only occurring in the optic nerve head or in the retina proper, but that the visual pathway is disturbed and the connections in the brain, which is the final pathway for vision, for the integration of what you see in your environment, for that to occur, you have to have connections in the brain. And these data really show that that connection is lost, it is diminished, early in the disease.

The visual system isn't only the eye. It involves the optic pathways and the brain, and these data really point us in a new direction. It actually increases the workload, in some sense, because we have to now consider the brain, and I don't think that has been adequately considered in this disease. But it also suggests that one can map the visual pathway in such a way that we may be able to determine when vision is lost early in the disease, and that's another critical question that we are all very interested in.

The point of this study is that it shows that early in the disease, that not only are cells getting sick in the retina, but the ganglion cell, its process, this cable that goes all the way back to the brain, begins to lose its connectivity back in the brain early in the disease. So we think about this pathway, we have to treat… we can’t treat the eye to treat glaucoma, we have to treat the entire pathway. It’s a very important concept.


Philip J. Horner, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, University of Washington, in Seattle, WA.

The Horner lab is focused on neurodegeneration and neural regeneration in models of glaucoma and spinal cord injury. The lab established and maintains a reliable glaucoma model to study and test hypotheses. Dr. Horner’s experience in spinal cord injury and glial cells has been applied to glaucoma leading to new findings on the role of gliosis and oxidative stress in glaucoma.

Dr. Horner is a principal investigator in the Catalyst for a Cure research consortium funded by Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Last reviewed on October 29, 2017

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