Researchers May Have Found the Cause of Glaucoma

October 8th, 2018
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Glaucoma’s cause was previously a mystery, but new research points to an autoimmune malfunction as the culprit.

About 60 million people suffer from glaucoma, making it one of the world’s leading causes of blindness. Despite the condition’s pervasiveness, scientists haven’t been able to identify its cause — that is, until now. New research from MIT scientists has found that glaucoma appears to be caused by a malfunction of the autoimmune system.

Elevated Eye Pressure May Not Be Responsible

For some time, scientists have known that patients with glaucoma tend to have above-average levels of intraocular pressure. Because of this, it was believed that elevated eye pressure might cause glaucoma. However, scientists were never able to come up with a satisfactory model to explain how increased pressure could result in the nerve damage that characterizes the condition.

As it turns out, vision specialists may have been barking up the wrong tree. The new study suggests a completely different cause: early exposure to bacteria, which can cause molecules known as “heat shock proteins” to accumulate in the eye.

The heat shock proteins then trigger an immune system response that sends memory T-cells to the eye. T-cells are designed to destroy foreign objects like bacteria. However, they can’t distinguish between foreign and non-foreign cells — it’s the job of the heat shock proteins to help them.

T-cells assume that any object the heat shock proteins attach to are foreign invaders which should be destroyed. But in patients with glaucoma, the heat shock proteins appear to have identified nerve cells in the eyes as foreign. The T-cells, which don’t know any better, attack and eventually destroy the nerve cells. This causes pain and visual deficits, which can progress to blindness if left untreated.

New Methods for Glaucoma Detection

Patients with glaucoma can sometimes lose as many as 50% of the neurons in their eyes before they notice any visual deficits. That’s why, in the past, frequent eye exams were the only way to catch glaucoma in an early, manageable stage. However, thanks to these new discoveries, doctors may soon be able to detect glaucoma by looking for a biomarker in the blood, before the autoimmune response has any effect on vision at all.

Possibilities for a Cure

The most common glaucoma treatments lower intraocular pressure, either by decreasing fluid production in the eye or making it easier for that fluid to drain through stents or other outlets. However, in light of the connection between immune responses and glaucoma, new treatments may soon be in the works. These treatments will likely allow doctors to identify glaucoma risk factors years before the disease begins to develop.

For now, that sort of targeted therapy is still years away. Until then, frequent eye exams are the best way to prevent and detect glaucoma before it severely compromises vision. Contact Kleiman Evangelista Eye Centers of TX to make an appointment today.

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