UK scientists have shown for the first time that key proteins involved in Alzheimer's disease are also implicated in glaucoma, the major cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. Research carried out at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and funded by the Wellcome Trust has also shown that novel drugs being trialled for Alzheimer's disease which target this protein may be used to treat glaucoma.
The research team has developed a new technology for visualising nerve cell damage in the retina, known as Detection of Apoptosing Retinal Cells. Using this technology, they demonstrated that the protein beta-amyloid, which causes the so-called "plaque" lesions in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, also leads to nerve cell death in the retina. The research is published online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
"We've seen for the first time that there is a clear link between what causes Alzheimer's disease and one of the basic mechanisms behind glaucoma," says Dr Francesca Cordeiro from University College London, who led the study. Dr Cordeiro is also a consultant ophthalmologist at the Western Eye Hospital, London, specialising in glaucoma. "However, this doesn't mean that everyone with Alzheimer's will develop glaucoma or vice versa. Glaucoma has a number of risk factors."
Glaucoma affects over half a million in the UK and as many as 65 million people worldwide(1). Little is know about what exactly causes the disease, which causes damage to the optic nerve in the eye; although the disease is traditionally attributed to increased pressure in the eye (known as "intraocular pressure", and clinical treatments attempt to lower this pressure). However a significant number of patients continue to lose vision despite their pressure being well controlled. The new research opens up a new avenue of treatment in glaucoma which does not involve treating intraocular pressure.