Leber hereditary optic neuropathy: how do mitochondrial DNA mutations cause degeneration of the optic nerve?

J Bioenerg Biomembr. 1997 Apr;29(2):165-73. doi: 10.1023/a:1022690030664.


Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is an inherited form of bilateral optic atrophy in which the primary etiological event is a mutation in the mitochondrial genome. The optic neuropathy involves a loss of central vision due to degeneration of the retinal ganglion cells and optic nerve axons that subserve central vision. The primary mitochondrial mutation is necessary--but not sufficient--for development of the optic neuropathy, and secondary genetic and/or epigenetic risk factors must also be present although they are poorly defined at the present time. There is broad agreement that mutations at nucleotides 3460, 11778, and 14484 are primary LHON mutations, but there may also be other rare primary mutations. It appears that the three primary LHON mutations are associated with respiratory chain dysfunction, but the derangements may be relatively subtle. There is also debate on whether there are mitochondrial mutations that have a secondary etiological or pathogenic role in LHON. The specific pattern of the optic neuropathy may arise from a "chokepoint" in the optic nerve in the region of the nerve head and lamina cribosa, and which may be more severe in those LHON family members who become visually affected. It is hypothesized that the respiratory chain dysfunction leads to axoplasmic stasis and swelling, thereby blocking ganglion cell function and causing loss of vision. In some LHON patients, this loss of function is reversible in a substantial number of ganglion cells, but in others, a cell death pathway (probably apoptotic) is activated with subsequent extensive degeneration of the retinal ganglion cell layer and optic nerve.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Mitochondrial*
  • Electron Transport
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation*
  • Nerve Degeneration / genetics
  • Nervous System Diseases
  • Optic Atrophies, Hereditary / genetics*
  • Optic Atrophies, Hereditary / pathology
  • Optic Nerve / pathology*


  • DNA, Mitochondrial