Molecular mechanisms of light-induced photoreceptor apoptosis and neuroprotection for retinal degeneration

Prog Retin Eye Res. 2005 Mar;24(2):275-306. doi: 10.1016/j.preteyeres.2004.08.002. Epub 2004 Nov 11.


Human retinal dystrophies and degenerations and light-induced retinal degenerations in animal models are sharing an important feature: visual cell death by apoptosis. Studying apoptosis may thus provide an important handle to understand mechanisms of cell death and to develop potential rescue strategies for blinding retinal diseases. Apoptosis is the regulated elimination of individual cells and constitutes an almost universal principle in developmental histogenesis and organogenesis and in the maintenance of tissue homeostasis in mature organs. Here we present an overview on molecular and cellular mechanisms of apoptosis and summarize recent developments. The classical concept of apoptosis being initiated and executed by endopeptidases that cleave proteins at aspartate residues (Caspases) can no longer be held in its strict sense. There is an increasing number of caspase-independent pathways, involving apoptosis inducing factor, endonuclease G, poly-(ADP-ribose) polymerase-1, proteasomes, lysosomes and others. Similarly, a considerable number and diversity of pro-apoptotic stimuli is being explored. We focus on apoptosis pathways in our model: light-damage induced by short exposures to bright white light and highlight those essential conditions known so far in the apoptotic death cascade. In our model, the visual pigment rhodopsin is the essential mediator of the initial death signal. The rate of rhodopsin regeneration defines damage threshold in different strains of mice. This rate depends on the level of the pigment epithelial protein RPE65, which in turn depends on the amino acid (leucine or methionine) encoded at position 450. Activation of the pro-apoptotic transcription factor AP-1 constitutes an essential death signal. Inhibition of rhodopsin regeneration as well as suppression of AP-1 confers complete protection in our system. Furthermore, we describe observations in other light-damage systems as well as characteristics of animal models for RP with particular emphasis on rescue strategies. There is a vast array of different neuroprotective cytokines that are applied in light-damage and RP animal models and show diverging efficacy. Some cytokines protect against light damage as well as against RP in animal models. At present, the mechanisms of neuroprotective/anti-apoptotic action represent a "black box" which needs to be explored. Even though acute light damage and RP animal models show different characteristics in many respects, we hope to gain insights into apoptotic mechanisms for both conditions by studying light damage and comparing results with those obtained in animal models. In our view, future directions may include the investigation of different apoptotic pathways in light damage (and inherited animal models). Emphasis should also be placed on mechanisms of removal of dead cells in apoptosis, which appears to be more important than initially recognized. In this context, a stimulating concept concerns age-related macular degeneration, where an insufficiency of macrophages removing debris that results from cell death and photoreceptor turnover might be an important pathogenetic event. In acute light damage, the appearance of macrophages as well as phagocytosis by the retinal pigment epithelium are a consistent and conspicuous feature, which lends itself to the study of removal of cellular debris in apoptosis. We are aware of the many excellent reviews and the earlier work paving the way to our current knowledge and understanding of retinal degeneration, photoreceptor apoptosis and neuroprotection. However, we limited this review mainly to work published in the last 7-8 years and we apologize to all the researchers which have contributed to the field but are not cited here.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / radiation effects*
  • Humans
  • Light*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / radiation effects*
  • Radiation Injuries, Experimental / etiology
  • Radiation Injuries, Experimental / prevention & control*
  • Radiation Protection*
  • Retinal Degeneration / etiology
  • Retinal Degeneration / prevention & control*