Loss of melanin from human RPE with aging: possible role of melanin photooxidation

Exp Eye Res. 2003 Jan;76(1):89-98. doi: 10.1016/s0014-4835(02)00247-6.


The pigment melanin, which is believed to play a photoprotective role, was quantified here in human RPE cells from donors of different age. Electron spin resonance (ESR) spectroscopy was shown to provide a quantitative measure of melanin and was used as a non-destructive measure of melanin content. Results indicated an age-related melanin loss in RPE cells, with melanin content diminishing 2.5-fold between the first and the ninth decade of life. To determine whether photo-oxidation may contribute to age-related changes in RPE melanin, RPE in human eyecups, isolated human and bovine RPE cells, purified melanin granules, or synthetic dopa melanin were irradiated with various wavelengths and intensities of visible light. Samples were analysed for changes in melanin content by ESR spectroscopy, and by absorption and emission spectrophotometry. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide was measured in some samples, and some human eyecups were examined by transmission electron microscopy. Irradiation of RPE in eyecups with intense visible light was found to produce a time-dependent photobleaching of melanosomes that was accompanied by the formation of hydrogen peroxide. Photobleaching of isolated RPE melanosomes and synthetic dopa melanin resulted in enhanced melanin fluorescence, as previously shown for melanin from aged donors by others, and significantly reduced ESR signal intensity, resembling the changes in melanin with aging observed here. We conclude that the content of melanin in RPE cells undergoes an age-related change to which photo-oxidation may contribute. This observation raises the question of whether age-related changes in melanin reduce the photoprotective role of the pigment in aging RPE cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Child
  • Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Humans
  • Melanins / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Photobleaching
  • Pigment Epithelium of Eye / metabolism*
  • Pigment Epithelium of Eye / ultrastructure


  • Melanins