New Imaging Technique Enables Scientists to View Individual Retinal Ganglion Cells (RGCs); Advance May Allow Earlier Diagnosis and Treatment of Glaucoma, Other Eye Diseases

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York have developed a new imaging technique that could revolutionize how eye health and disease are assessed. The group is first to be able to make out individual cells at the back of the eye that are implicated in vision loss in diseases like glaucoma. The researchers hope their new technique could prevent vision loss via earlier diagnosis and treatment for these diseases. In a study highlighted in PNAS, Ethan A. Rossi, Ph.D., now Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, describes a new method to non-invasively image the human retina, a layer of cells at the back of the eye that are essential for vision. The group, led by David Williams, Ph.D., Dean for Research in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering and the William G. Allyn Chair for Medical Optics at the University of Rochester, was able to distinguish individual retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which bear most of the responsibility of relaying visual information to the brain. There has been a longstanding interest in imaging RGCs because their death causes vision loss in glaucoma, the second leading cause of acquired blindness worldwide. Despite great efforts, no one has successfully captured images of individual RGCs, in part because they are nearly perfectly transparent. Instead of imaging RGCs directly, glaucoma is currently diagnosed by assessing the thickness of the nerve fibers projecting from the RGCs to the brain. However, by the time retinal nerve fiber thickness has changed detectably, a patient may have lost 100,000 RGCs or more. "You only have 1.2 million RGCs in the whole eye, so a loss of 100,000 is significant," said Dr. Williams. "The sooner we can catch the loss, the better our chances of halting disease and preventing vision loss."
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