Retinal ganglion cells cover a lot of territory. Located in the eye, they gather information from neurons throughout the retina, and their axons bundle together into the optic nerve and extend out to the visual center in the brain. In this image of a mouse retina, axons are shown by a fluorescent marker, with the head of the optic nerve at the center.
Scientists at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) are studying how retinal ganglion cells and their axons change in glaucoma, the second most common cause of blindness globally. Existing treatments for the disease focus on reducing pressure in the eye. They do not address the damage that has already occurred to retinal ganglion cells and the optic nerve in patients with glaucoma. Combining treatments that lower ocular pressure with therapies that address this damage potentially may provide better results.
Researchers in NIBR’s Ophthalmology group are building in vitro and in vivo models to explore glaucoma biology and to screen chemicals. They’re searching for molecules that help protect retinal ganglion cells and their axons. Additionally, the researchers hope that their discoveries will help in addressing diseases beyond the eye.
“Scientists often use the optic nerve as a model for the central nervous system because it’s easily accessible and shares common features,” says investigator Chenying Guo. “Although we’re currently focused on glaucoma, this work is also applicable to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as to spinal cord injuries.”