Impact of senescence and disease on the structural and functional performance of the visual pathway

  • Helena Workman

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The diagnosis and monitoring of ocular disease presents considerable clinical difficulties for two main reasons i) the substantial physiological variation of anatomical structure of the visual pathway and ii) constraints due to technical limitations of diagnostic hardware. These are further confounded by difficulties in detecting early loss or change in visual function due to the masking of disease effects, for example, due to a high degree of redundancy in terms of nerve
fibre number along the visual pathway.
This thesis addresses these issues across three areas of study:
1. Factors influencing retinal thickness measures and their clinical interpretation
As the retina is the principal anatomical site for damage associated with visual loss, objective measures of retinal thickness and retinal nerve fibre layer thickness are key to the detection of pathology. In this thesis the ability of optical coherence tomography (OCT) to provide repeatable and reproducible measures of retinal structure at the macula and optic nerve head is investigated. In addition, the normal physiological variations in retinal thickness and retinal nerve fibre layer thickness are explored. Principal findings were:
• Macular retinal thickness and optic nerve head measurements are repeatable and reproducible for normal subjects and diseased eyes
• Macular and retinal nerve fibre layer thickness around the optic nerve correlate
negatively with axial length, suggesting that larger eyes have thinner retinae, potentially making them more susceptible to damage or disease
• Foveola retinal thickness increases with age while retinal nerve fibre layer thickness around the optic nerve head decreases with age. Such findings should be considered during examination of the eye with suspect pathology or in long-term disease monitoring
2. Impact of glucose control on retinal anatomy and function in diabetes
Diabetes is a major health concern in the UK and worldwide and diabetic retinopathy is a major cause of blindness in the working population. Objective, quantitative measurements of retinal thickness. particularly at the macula provide essential information regarding disease progression and the efficacy of treatment. Functional vision loss in diabetic patients is commonly observed
in clinical and experimental studies and is thought to be affected by blood glucose levels. In the first study of its kind, the short term impact of fluctuations in blood glucose levels on retinal structure and function over a 12 hour period in patients with diabetes are investigated. Principal findings were:
• Acute fluctuations in blood glucose levels are greater in diabetic patients than normal subjects
• The fluctuations in blood glucose levels impact contrast sensitivity scores. SWAP
visual fields, intraocular pressure and diastolic pressure. This effect is similar for type 1 and type 2 diabetic patients despite the differences in their physiological status.
• Long-term metabolic control in the diabetic patient is a useful predictor in the
fluctuation of contrast sensitivity scores.
• Large fluctuations in blood glucose levels and/or visual function and structure may be indicative of an increased risk of development or progression of retinopathy
3. Structural and functional damage of the visual pathway in glaucomatous optic neuropathy
The glaucomatous eye undergoes a number of well documented pathological changes including retinal nerve fibre loss and optic nerve head damage which is correlated with loss of functional vision. In experimental glaucoma there is evidence that glaucomatous damage extends from retinal ganglion cells in the eye, along the visual pathway, to vision centres in the brain. This thesis explores the effects of glaucoma on retinal nerve fibre layer thickness, ocular anterior
anatomy and cortical structure, and its correlates with visual function in humans. Principal findings were:
• In the retina, glaucomatous retinal nerve fibre layer loss is less marked with increasing distance from the optic nerve head, suggesting that RNFL examination at a greater distance than traditionally employed may provide invaluable early indicators of glaucomatous damage
• Neuroretinal rim area and retrobulbar optic nerve diameter are strong indicators of visual field loss
• Grey matter density decreases at a rate of 3.85% per decade. There was no clear evidence of a disease effect
• Cortical activation as measured by fMRI was a strong indicator of functional damage in patients with significant neuroretinal rim loss despite relatively modest visual field defects
These investigations have shown that the effects of senescence are evident in both the anterior and posterior visual pathway. A variety of anatomical and functional diagnostic protocols for the investigation of damage to the visual pathway in ocular disease are required to maximise understanding of the disease processes and thereby optimising patient care.
Date of AwardDec 2005
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorSarah L Hosking (Supervisor)


  • optical coherence tomography
  • retinal and retinal nerve fibre layer thickness
  • age and axial length effects
  • glaucoma
  • diabetes

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