Optic nerve degeneration and mitochondrial dysfunction: genetic and acquired optic neuropathies

Neurochem Int. 2002 May;40(6):573-84. doi: 10.1016/s0197-0186(01)00129-2.


Selective degeneration of the smallest fibers (papillo-macular bundle) of the human optic nerve occurs in a large number of optic neuropathies characterized primarily by loss of central vision. The pathophysiology that underlies this peculiar pattern of cell involvement probably reflects different forms of genetic and acquired mitochondrial dysfunction. Maternally inherited Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), dominant optic atrophy (Kjer disease), the optic atrophy of Leigh's syndrome, Friedreich ataxia and a variety of other conditions are examples of inherited mitochondrial disorders with different etiologies. Tobacco-alcohol amblyopia (TAA), the Cuban epidemic of optic neuropathy (CEON) and other dietary (Vitamins B, folate deficiencies) optic neuropathies, as well as toxic optic neuropathies such as due to chloramphenicol, ethambutol, or more rarely to carbon monoxide, methanol and cyanide are probably all related forms of acquired mitochondrial dysfunction. Biochemical and cellular studies in LHON point to a partial defect of respiratory chain function that may generate either an ATP synthesis defect and/or a chronic increase of oxidative stress. Histopathological studies in LHON cases and a rat model mimicking CEON revealed a selective loss of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and the corresponding axons, particularly in the temporal-central part of the optic nerve. Anatomical peculiarities of optic nerve axons, such as the asymmetric pattern of myelination, may have functional implications on energy dependence and distribution of mitochondrial populations in the different sections of the nerve. Histological evidence suggests impaired axonal transport of mitochondria in LHON and in the CEON-like rat model, indicating a possible common pathophysiology for this category of optic neuropathies. Histological evidence of myelin pathology in LHON also suggests a role for oxidative stress, possibly affecting the oligodendrocytes of the optic nerves.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / pathology
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Nerve Degeneration / genetics*
  • Nerve Degeneration / metabolism*
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology
  • Nerve Degeneration / physiopathology
  • Optic Nerve Diseases / genetics*
  • Optic Nerve Diseases / metabolism*
  • Optic Nerve Diseases / pathology
  • Optic Nerve Diseases / physiopathology
  • Optics and Photonics