Glaucoma-related vision loss is caused by one of two ways. One way is damage to the optic nerve, the structure that sends visual information to the brain. The second way is pressure, and not just elevated pressure. Most people think that when internal eye pressure reaches a certain level, it results in glaucoma. This is not true; rather, glaucoma involves sensitivity to eye pressure that is translated to stress that wears down the optic nerve.
There is no cure for glaucoma, but current therapies involve eye drops, lasers, surgery, or both to reduce stress on the optic nerve. These methods are effective for many patients, but some patients continue to lose their vision in spite of treatment. Doctors and researchers have begun to study the optic nerve head, the place where eye pressure exerts the most influence. The optic nerve head is the location where nerve fibers leave the retina and enter the optic nerve. The nerve head provides support to the nerve fibers and also joins the nerve to the rest of the eye. Therefore, pressure in the front of the eye can actually cause stress to the optic nerve.
Once the optic nerve is damaged, it cannot be restored. The field of regenerative medicine hopes to find a way to introduce new nerve fibers or help damaged nerves regrow. This would theoretically rebuild the connection between the brain and the optic nerve, but scientists are still in the early stages.
Another area of research involves increasing brain activity to increase the optic nerve’s ability to resist stress. A collaborative group of scientists called Catalyst for a Cure discovered a “window of structural persistence” in which the optic nerve still communicates with the brain even when glaucoma interrupts visual function. The scientists found that optic nerve fibers worked to increase their electrical activity through self-repair mechanisms.
This is exciting news in the field of glaucoma. Researchers will continue to study methods to help nerve fibers regenerate, as well as how optic nerve stress is conveyed. If you are affected by glaucoma, visit your ophthalmologist regularly for comprehensive eye exams to stay up-to-date on the most current treatment information (Source: Glaucoma Research Foundation).