Neural remodeling in retinal degeneration

Prog Retin Eye Res. 2003 Sep;22(5):607-55. doi: 10.1016/s1350-9462(03)00039-9.


Mammalian retinal degenerations initiated by gene defects in rods, cones or the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) often trigger loss of the sensory retina, effectively leaving the neural retina deafferented. The neural retina responds to this challenge by remodeling, first by subtle changes in neuronal structure and later by large-scale reorganization. Retinal degenerations in the mammalian retina generally progress through three phases. Phase 1 initiates with expression of a primary insult, followed by phase 2 photoreceptor death that ablates the sensory retina via initial photoreceptor stress, phenotype deconstruction, irreversible stress and cell death, including bystander effects or loss of trophic support. The loss of cones heralds phase 3: a protracted period of global remodeling of the remnant neural retina. Remodeling resembles the responses of many CNS assemblies to deafferentation or trauma, and includes neuronal cell death, neuronal and glial migration, elaboration of new neurites and synapses, rewiring of retinal circuits, glial hypertrophy and the evolution of a fibrotic glial seal that isolates the remnant neural retina from the surviving RPE and choroid. In early phase 2, stressed photoreceptors sprout anomalous neurites that often reach the inner plexiform and ganglion cell layers. As death of rods and cones progresses, bipolar and horizontal cells are deafferented and retract most of their dendrites. Horizontal cells develop anomalous axonal processes and dendritic stalks that enter the inner plexiform layer. Dendrite truncation in rod bipolar cells is accompanied by revision of their macromolecular phenotype, including the loss of functioning mGluR6 transduction. After ablation of the sensory retina, Müller cells increase intermediate filament synthesis, forming a dense fibrotic layer in the remnant subretinal space. This layer invests the remnant retina and seals it from access via the choroidal route. Evidence of bipolar cell death begins in phase 1 or 2 in some animal models, but depletion of all neuronal classes is evident in phase 3. As remodeling progresses over months and years, more neurons are lost and patches of the ganglion cell layer can become depleted. Some survivor neurons of all classes elaborate new neurites, many of which form fascicles that travel hundreds of microns through the retina, often beneath the distal glial seal. These and other processes form new synaptic microneuromas in the remnant inner nuclear layer as well as cryptic connections throughout the retina. Remodeling activity peaks at mid-phase 3, where neuronal somas actively migrate on glial surfaces. Some amacrine and bipolar cells move into the former ganglion cell layer while other amacrine cells are everted through the inner nuclear layer to the glial seal. Remodeled retinas engage in anomalous self-signaling via rewired circuits that might not support vision even if they could be driven anew by cellular or bionic agents. We propose that survivor neurons actively seek excitation as sources of homeostatic Ca(2+) fluxes. In late phase 3, neuron loss continues and the retina becomes increasingly glial in composition. Retinal remodeling is not plasticity, but represents the invocation of mechanisms resembling developmental and CNS plasticities. Together, neuronal remodeling and the formation of the glial seal may abrogate many cellular and bionic rescue strategies. However, survivor neurons appear to be stable, healthy, active cells and given the evidence of their reactivity to deafferentation, it may be possible to influence their emergent rewiring and migration habits.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Death
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / physiology
  • Retinal Degeneration / physiopathology*
  • Visual Pathways / physiopathology