Researchers at the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah and Scripps Research have used the retina to study how neurons die and how they can be revived. Photoreceptors are a type of neuron that delivers visual information. The researchers were able to revive photoreceptor cells in donated eyes that were harvested within 5 hours of death. The cells could respond to light, but could not transmit signals to other cells. A lack of oxygen was the suspected cause, so the eyes were harvested the next time within 20 minutes of death, and transported in a special carrier that provides oxygen and other nutrients to keep the eyes viable. A new device that could stimulate the retina and send communication signals was successfully developed, enabling further studies in human vision loss due to neurodegenerative diseases. This research also shows that it is possible to get cells in different layers of the retina in the eye to communicate with each other. This may help develop therapies that can improve vision.
What this means for Usher syndrome: The successful revitalization of photoreceptor cells in post-mortem eyes provides a new “human” model to study vision loss. This technique may also be evaluated as a possible therapy for vision loss caused by neurodegenerative diseases like retinitis pigmentosa.