Purpose: Drusen are variably sized extracellular deposits that form between the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) and Bruch's membrane. They are commonly found in aged eyes, however, numerous and/or confluent drusen are a significant risk factor for age-related macular degeneration. The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of drusen on overlying cells of the retina.
Methods: Tissue containing retina and RPE/choroid was dissected from human donor eyes, embedded in agarose, and sectioned at 100 micro m using a vibratome. Sections were immunostained with a panel of antibodies that labeled glial cells, first-, second-, and third-order retinal neurons and processed for confocal microscopy.
Results: Retinal cells that overlie both soft and hard drusen exhibited numerous structural and molecular abnormalities. Normally detectable only in the outer segments of rod photoreceptors, rod opsin immunolabeling was also observed in the inner segment, cell body, axon, and axon terminal of photoreceptors that overlie drusen. Labeling with this antibody also revealed the deflection and shortening of rod inner and outer segments. Cone photoreceptors displayed similar structural abnormalities, as well as a decrease in cone opsin immunoreactivity. Drusen-associated abnormalities in the synaptic terminals of photoreceptor cells were also observed. In addition, an increase in intermediate filament protein immunoreactivity (vimentin and glial fibrillary acidic protein) was observed within Müller glial cells in areas of retina overlying drusen. Both soft and hard drusen were associated with a similar spectrum of effects in both macular and extramacular regions. Second- and third-order neurons, including bipolar, horizontal, amacrine, and ganglion cells all appeared unaffected. The structural and molecular abnormalities observed in photoreceptors and Müller glial cells were confined to retinal regions directly overlying and immediately adjacent to drusen; more distant retinal regions appeared unperturbed. Remarkably, significant abnormalities were observed over small subclinical drusen.
Conclusions: Retinal cells overlying both soft and hard drusen exhibit structural and molecular abnormalities indicative of photoreceptor degeneration and Müller glial activation. These abnormalities resemble the degenerative effects common to many forms of retinal degeneration, but are confined to areas directly overlying drusen. This suggests that photoreceptor cell function is compromised as a consequence of drusen formation.