Objectives: To characterize and quantitate optic nerve histopathologic and morphometric differences between optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH) as an early and congenital form of intrinsic axonal loss and Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) as a late and acquired form of intrinsic axonal loss.
Materials and methods: Optic nerves from 3 sources were examined: a 42-year-old healthy woman (control), a 53-year-old woman with ONH diagnosed postmortem, and a 74-year-old woman with LHON. The optic nerves were processed, embedded, and stained with a 1% solution of paraphenylene diamine. Histopathologic and morphometric analyses were performed via light microscopy and a semiautomatic computer image analysis system.
Results: The ONH showed severe axonal depletion without degenerated profiles in an inferonasal sector, with only a small superotemporal sector having a near normal appearance. The LHON revealed general axonal depletion centrally, fibrocytic scarring, scattered "degeneration dust," and evidence of minimal inflammation, with residual axons limited to superior and temporal peripheral clusters. Morphometric analysis revealed total fiber populations of 98,000 in the ONH optic nerve and 48,000 in the LHON optic nerve, representing 90% and 95% reductions, respectively, compared with the control optic nerve (1.2 million fibers).
Conclusions: Optic nerve hypoplasia and LHON present 2 distinguishable and distinctive patterns of nerve fiber distribution and axonal dropout. The lack of degenerated axons in ONH indicates that any axonal death probably occurred through apoptosis during development. In LHON, degenerated axons and minimal grade of inflammation were obvious, implicating a more "active" pathologic process. This study describes distinctions between these 2 optic neuropathies.