Drusen in age-related macular degeneration: pathogenesis, natural course, and laser photocoagulation-induced regression

Surv Ophthalmol. Jul-Aug 1999;44(1):1-29. doi: 10.1016/s0039-6257(99)00072-7.


Drusen are subretinal pigment epithelial deposits that are characteristic of but not uniquely associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Age-related macular degeneration is associated with two types of drusen that have different clinical appearances and different prognoses. Hard drusen appear as small, punctate, yellow nodules and can precede the development of atrophic AMD. Areolar atrophy of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), choriocapillaris, and outer retina develop as the drusen disappear, but drusen can regress without evidence of atrophy. Soft drusen appear as large (usually larger than 63 microm in diameter), pale yellow or grayish-white, dome-shaped elevations that can resemble localized serous RPE detachments. They tend to precede the development of clinically evident RPE detachments and choroidal neovascularization. Drusen characteristics correlated with progression to exudative maculopathy include drusen number (five or more), drusen size (larger than 63 microm in diameter), and confluence of drusen. Focal hyperpigmentation in the macula and systemic hypertension also are associated with an increased risk of developing choroidal new vessels (CNVs). Large drusen are usually a sign of diffuse thickening of Bruch's membrane with basal linear deposit, a vesicular material that probably arises from the RPE, constitutes a diffusion barrier to water-soluble constituents in the plasma, results in lipidization of Bruch's membrane, and creates a potential cleavage plane between the RPE basement membrane and the inner collagenous layer of Bruch's membrane through which CNVs can grow. Disappearance of drusen spontaneously and in areas adjacent to laser photocoagulation scars was first noted by Gass (Gass JD: Arch Ophthalmol 90:206-217, 1973; Trans Am Acad Ophthalmol Otolaryngol 75:580-608, 1971). Subsequent reports have confirmed these observations. Photocoagulation-induced drusen regression might prevent patients with drusen from developing exudative maculopathy. The mechanism for spontaneous drusen regression probably involves RPE atrophy. The mechanism for photocoagulation-induced drusen regression is unknown. If photocoagulation-induced drusen regression is anatomically similar to atrophy-associated drusen regression, then the former will be associated with dissolution of basal linear deposit and a residuum of basal laminar deposit. Sarks and coworkers (Sarks JP, Sarks SH, Killingsworth MC: Eye 11:515-522, 1997) proposed that this in turn will eliminate the potential cleavage plane between the RPE basement membrane and inner collagenous layer of Bruch's membrane through which CNVs grow, thus retarding the growth of CNVs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bruch Membrane / pathology
  • Choroidal Neovascularization / etiology
  • Disease Progression
  • Exudates and Transudates
  • Fluorescein Angiography
  • Fundus Oculi
  • Humans
  • Laser Coagulation*
  • Macular Degeneration / complications*
  • Macular Degeneration / physiopathology
  • Pigment Epithelium of Eye / pathology
  • Retinal Drusen / etiology*
  • Retinal Drusen / pathology
  • Retinal Drusen / physiopathology
  • Retinal Drusen / surgery