Optic nerve disease may cause sleep disorders

St. Louis, Feb. 1, 2004 -- Young people with eye diseases that damage the inner part of the retina and optic nerve are significantly more likely to have sleep disorders than those with other types of eye disease or those with normal vision, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

In the February issue of the journal Ophthalmology, the investigators report on a study involving 25 students, ages 12 to 20, from the Missouri School for the Blind and 12 students with normal sight from the Thomas Jefferson School, a boarding school in suburban St. Louis. The visually impaired students were divided into two groups: Those whose visual problems were related to optic nerve disease and those whose vision loss did not involve the optic nerve. The optic nerve is made up of ganglion cells, the type of cells targeted by eye diseases such as glaucoma.

Participants with optic nerve disease were 20 times more likely to be pathologically sleepy (napping 20 or more minutes per day) than those with normal sight. They also were nine times more likely to have pathologic sleepiness than children who were blind from non-optic nerve diseases.

"We suspect these patients have difficulty using daylight to synchronize their internal rhythms to the outside world," says senior investigator Russell N. Van Gelder, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and of molecular biology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine.

In recent research, Van Gelder found that the retina contains not only the photoreceptor cells called rods and cones, which translate light into vision, but it also houses non-visual photoreceptor cells called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRG cells) that function as the eye's "light meter."

In a camera, the light meter helps a photographer determine how to set the shutter speed and whether to use a flash. By determining light levels, ipRG cells

Contact: Jim Dryden
Washington University School of Medicine

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