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The End May be Near for Diabetic Vision Loss

If you’re diabetic and you’ve had “the talk” with your doctor, you already know your vision is at risk, over time. In fact, diabetic retinopathy (DR) is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in adults. Here are some of the warning signs to look for:

  • Floaters (spots or strings that float in your visual field)
  • Blurred vision
  • Changes in vision clarity that come and go
  • Recent changes in your ability to see colors
  • Blank or black areas in your visual field
  • Poor vision in lower light

A recent study conducted at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that DR affected almost one-third of adult diabetics over age 40. Put another way, 4.2 million adults had DR and 655,000 had vision-threatening DR. The more severe form of the disease, proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR), was more than twice as common among Mexican Americans and nearly three times more common in African-Americans, as in the white population.

DR puts you at greater risk for vitreous hemorrhage, in which leaking blood fills the eye and blocks light from reaching the retina; detached retina, in which the thin tissue of photosensitive cells near the optic nerve pull loose from the back of the eye; and glaucoma, in which fluid pressure in the eye builds up and damages the optic nerve. Any of these complications can lead to debilitating blindness.

One way to slow DR progression, of course, is to control blood glucose levels with diet, exercise, and medication. But vision researchers are now on the verge of adding another powerful weapon to our defenses against this sight thief – one that doesn’t merely retard the progression of DR, but rather prevents it altogether.

Results of a new study out of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center suggest that administering a vitamin A analog called chromophore 9-cis-retinal, which creates a light-sensitizing visual pigment in retinal cells, can quickly reverse diabetic vision impairment – at least in mice. And it happens after only one dose.

An analog, by the way, is simply a synthetic version of a vitamin. And this one not only improves vision in rodents with diabetic retinopathy, it also reduces the concentration of retinal free radicals, which kill cells and contribute to vision loss.

The data suggest we may need to change our basic assumptions about sight loss in diabetes. Until now, doctors have assumed that DR resulted from blood vessel complications in the retina. But the University of Oklahoma study suggests that the real underlying difficulty may be a vitamin A deficiency in the eye.

If this research translates to similar findings in the human eye, we’re on the verge of major breakthrough in preventing one of the most prevalent forms of blindness.

A vitamin A analog may help treat diabetic retinopathy

Full study


Gennadiy Moiseyev, PhD, Department of Physiology, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK

Volha V. Malechka, MD, National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland

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