We’re not strangers to the topic of diabetic retinopathy here at RYV. We’ve devoted a lot of time to the subject on this blog because it is the most common eye disease among diabetics. If caught early, it may be possible to prevent it, which is why we work hard to bring you the facts.
However, in light of a new study conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, it seems that there are new developments in understanding what exactly causes diabetic retinopathy, and it isn’t what any of us thought.
Ask any physician what causes diabetic retinopathy and they’ll say, “Blood vessel damage”. Leader of the study Rithwick Rajagopal suggests otherwise. According to his findings, the disease develops long before the vessels get damaged and could be caused by nerve damage instead.
What is Diabetic Retinopathy?
Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetes-related disease that affects the blood vessels in the eyes. The disease does not affect every diabetic but those with constant high blood sugar are more likely to develop it.
The disease is sneaky. Symptoms oftentimes only appear in the later stages, meaning there is no chance at preventing it by then. The typical treatment of diabetic retinopathy is to use medication to control the blood vessel damage and prevent them from leaking more into the retina.
Symptoms of the disease include vision loss, blurred vision, floaters, and dark spots in your vision. Diabetic retinopathy normally affects both eyes. If you are diabetic and experience any of these symptoms, visit your eye doctor for a comprehensive eye exam.
Someone with diabetic retinopathy will experience spotted vision, due to blood vessel leakage in the retina. Parts of their central vision will diminish. Eventually, it can lead to complete loss of vision.
Diabetics aren’t the only people who need to worry about diabetic retinopathy. Sometimes during pregnancy, women can develop temporary diabetes and along with it, diabetic retinopathy. For this reason it is important for pregnant women to have their eyes checked regularly throughout their pregnancy.
Experts recommend diabetics get yearly eye exams to detect the disease early if it ever develops. Some doctors will recommend more frequent eye exams, especially if diabetic retinopathy is already present. If caught early, your doctor will help monitor the disease and help prevent it from getting worse.
Diabetic retinopathy is thought to be brought on by too much sugar in the blood. When this happens, the blood vessels in the eye become clogged. Your body’s natural counter action to blocked vessels is to produce more. However, these new blood vessels grow deformed and begin to leak into the eye.
The Study: Diabetic Retinopathy in Mice
Lead researcher Rithwick Rajagopal was unimpressed with the current treatment of diabetes, which was ultimately his motive for digging a little deeper when it came to detecting diabetic retinopathy. What he found was that the blood vessels may not be entirely to blame for the cause of the disease.
As mentioned, it is possible to control diabetic retinopathy with drugs, if caught early. The medication limits the formation of new blood vessels. This works to prevent the disease from graduating to the later stages, but is by no means a cure.
What Rajagopal has discovered could potentially open doors to finding a cure. He suggests that the cause of diabetic retinopathy is nerve damage, and that bleeding and leaking vessels are only a symptom of the disease.
The study began with mice being fed a high fat diet to induce diabetes and later, diabetic retinopathy. At the sixth month mark, these mice began to display nerve damage in the retina. However, they showed no sign of blood vessel damage.
The researches examine the mice’s eyes once more a full year after the start of the study. This time they had definite signs of blood vessel damage. According to Rajagopal, the disease progressed so slowly that they were able to thoroughly track the stages of the disease.
The study concluded that the nerve damage in the retina caused problems in the eye much earlier than the damage blood vessels did. This suggests that the true cause of diabetic retinopathy is not blood vessel damage, but nerve damage instead.
What Comes Next
What comes next in this saga is developing various therapies and medication to treat nerve damage in the eye before the blood vessel damage begins. However, Rajagopal explains that the long held belief that diabetic retinopathy is a blood vessel disease will not be easy to shake.
We need more human trials and further studies to support Rajagopal’s argument. This is not always such an easy task, especially when attempting to find willing participants. Researchers need to determine that diabetic retinopathy follows the same path in human eyes as in mice before treatments can be found.
Many people find that today’s medication adequately treats diabetic retinopathy (if it’s caught early enough). But, finding a way to detect the nerve damage could potentially lead to complete prevention of the disease.
Prevent Diabetic Retinopathy
For the time being, the only way to treat diabetic retinopathy is to prevent the disease from developing and from progressing if it has already developed in the eye. One way to prevent this disease is to keep your diabetes in check.
This seems like an obvious piece of advice, however many diabetics often have high blood sugar levels due to lack of monitoring. Keeping that in check will help to prevent nerve damage and blood vessel damage. Eating a balanced diet and cutting out overly sugary food could also help with disease prevention.
The hope for the future is that this new discovery can help diabetics and doctors alike to better understand this sight-threatening disease. Diabetes is a tough disease to handle without the added stress of diabetic retinopathy.
Hopefully new techniques for treating nerve damage in the retina are on the horizon. In the meantime, make your life a little easier by getting a comprehensive eye exam annually.