Importance: Stargardt disease (STGD1) is characterized by macular atrophy and flecks in the retinal pigment epithelium. The causative ABCA4 gene encodes a protein localizing to photoreceptor outer segments. The pathologic steps by which ABCA4 mutations lead to clinically detectable retinal pigment epithelium changes remain unclear. We investigated early STGD1 using adaptive optics scanning light ophthalmoscopy.
Observations: Adaptive optics scanning light ophthalmoscopy imaging of 2 brothers with early STGD1 and their unaffected parents was compared with conventional imaging. Cone and rod spacing were increased in both patients (P < .001) with a dark cone appearance. No foveal cones were detected in the older brother. In the younger brother, foveal cones were enlarged with low density (peak cone density, 48.3 × 103 cones/mm2). The ratio of cone to rod spacing was increased in both patients, with greater divergence from normal approaching the foveal center, indicating that cone loss predominates centrally and rod loss increases peripherally. Both parents had normal photoreceptor mosaics. Genetic testing revealed 3 disease-causing mutations.
Conclusions and relevance: This study provides in vivo images of rods and cones in STGD1. Although the primary clinical features of STGD1 are retinal pigment epithelial lesions, adaptive optics scanning light ophthalmoscopy reveals increased cone and rod spacing in areas that appear normal in conventional images, suggesting that photoreceptor loss precedes clinically detectable retinal pigment epithelial disease in STGD1.