Macular degeneration is a medical condition predominantly found in elderly adults in which the center of the inner lining of the eye, known as the macula area of the retina, suffers thinning, atrophy, and in some cases, bleeding. This can result in loss of central vision, which entails inability to see fine details, to read, or to recognize faces. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, it is the leading cause of central vision loss (blindness) in the United States today for those over the age of fifty years. Although some macular dystrophies that affect younger individuals are sometimes referred to as macular degeneration, the term generally refers to age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD).
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Age-related macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration begins with characteristic yellow deposits in the macula (central area of the retina which provides detailed central vision, called fovea) called drusen between the retinal pigment epithelium and the underlying choroid. Most people with these early changes (referred to as age-related maculopathy) have good vision. People with drusen can go on to develop advanced AMD. The risk is considerably higher when the drusen are large and numerous and associated with disturbance in the pigmented cell layer under the macula. Recent research suggests that large and soft drusen are related to elevated cholesterol deposits and may respond to cholesterol lowering agents or the Rheo Procedure.
Advanced AMD, which is responsible for profound vision loss, has two forms: dry and wet. Central geographic atrophy, the dry form of advanced AMD, results from atrophy to the retinal pigment epithelial layer below the retina, which causes vision loss through loss of photoreceptors (rods and cones) in the central part of the eye. While no treatment is available for this condition, vitamin supplements with high doses of antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, have been demonstrated by the National Eye Institute and others to slow the progression of dry macular degeneration and in some patients, improve visual acuity.
Neovascular or exudative AMD, the wet form of advanced AMD, causes vision loss due to abnormal blood vessel growth in the choriocapillaries, through Bruch's membrane, ultimately leading to blood and protein leakage below the macula. Bleeding, leaking, and scarring from these blood vessels eventually cause irreversible damage to the photoreceptors and rapid vision loss if left untreated.
* Aging: Approximately 10% of patients 66 to 74 years of age will have findings of macular degeneration. The prevalence increases to 30% in patients 75 to 85 years of age.
* Family history: The lifetime risk of developing late-stage macular degeneration is 50% for people who have a relative with macular degeneration versus 12% for people who do not have relatives with macular degeneration; a fourfold higher risk.
* Macular degeneration gene: The genes for the complement system proteins factor H (CFH) and factor B (CFB) have been determined to be strongly associated with a person's risk for developing macular degeneration. CFH is involved in inhibiting the inflammatory response mediated via C3b (and the Alternative Pathway of complement) both by acting as a cofactor for cleavage of C3b to its inactive form, C3bi, and by weakening the active complex that forms between C3b and factor B. C-reactive protein and polyanionic surface markers such as glycosaminoglycans normally enhance the ability of factor H to inhibit complement . But the mutation in CFH(Tyr402His) reduces the affinity of CFH for CRP and probably also alters the ability of factor H to recognise specific glycosaminoglycans. This change results in reduced ability of CFH to regulate complement on critical surfaces such as the specialised membrane at the back of the eye and leads to increased inflammatory response within the macula. In two 2006 studies at Yale Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah School of Medicine, another gene that has implications for the disease, called HTRA1 (encoding a secreted serine protease), was identified.The mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) in humans is contained on a single circular chromosome 16,569 basepairs around, and each mitochondrion contains 5 to 10 copies of the mitochondrial chromosome. There are several essential genes in mtDNA that are involved in replication and translation, along with some genes that are crucial for the machinery that converts metabolic energy into ATP. These include NADH dehydrogenase, cytochrome c oxidase, ubiquinol/cytochrome c oxidoreductase, and ATP synthase, as well as the genes for unique Ribosomal RNA and Transfer RNA particles that are required for translating these genes into proteins.
There are specific diseases associated with mutations in some of these genes. Below is one of the affected genes and the disease which arises from its mutation.
Mutation of the ATP synthase gene: Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is a genetically linked dysfunction of the retina and is related to mutation of the Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP) Synthase Gene 615.1617
Stargardt’s disease (STGD, also known as Juvenile Macular Degeneration) is an autosomal recessive retinal disorder characterized by a juvenile-onset macular dystrophy, alterations of the peripheral retina, and subretinal deposition of lipofuscin-like material. A gene encoding an ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter was mapped to the 2-cM (centiMorgan) interval at 1p13-p21 previously shown by linkage analysis to harbor the STGD gene. This gene, ABCR, is expressed exclusively and at high levels in the retina, in rod but not cone photoreceptors, as detected by in situ hybridization. Mutational analysis of ABCR in STGD families revealed a total of 19 different mutations including homozygous mutations in two families with consanguineous parentage. These data indicate that ABCR is the causal gene of STGD/FFM.
* Pigmentary alterations
* Exudative changes: hemorrhages in the eye, hard exudates, subretinal/sub-RPE/intraretinal fluid
* Atrophy: incipient and geographic
* Visual acuity drastically decreasing (two levels or more) ex: 20/20 to 20/80.
* Blurred vision: Those with nonexudative macular degeneration may be asymptomatic or notice a gradual loss of central vision, whereas those with exudative macular degeneration often notice a rapid onset of vision loss.
* Central scotomas (shadows or missing areas of vision)
* Distorted vision (i.e. metamorphopsia) - A grid of straight lines appears wavy and parts of the grid may appear blank. Patients often first notice this when looking at mini-blinds in their home.* Trouble discerning colors; specifically dark ones from dark ones and light ones from light ones.
* Slow recovery of visual function after exposure to bright light
The Amsler Grid Test is one of the simplest and most effective methods for patients to monitor the health of the macula. The Amsler Grid is essentially a pattern of intersecting lines (identical to graph paper) with a black dot in the middle. The central black dot is used for fixation (a place for the eye to stare at). With normal vision, all lines surrounding the black dot will look straight and evenly spaced with no missing or odd looking areas when fixating on the grid's central black dot. When there is disease affecting the macula, as in macular degeneration, the lines can look bent, distorted and/or missing. See a video on how to use an Amsler grid here: 
Macular degeneration by itself will not lead to total blindness. For that matter, only a very small number of people with visual impairment are totally blind. In almost all cases, some vision remains. Other complicating conditions may possibly lead to such an acute condition (severe stroke or trauma, untreated glaucoma, etc.), but few macular degeneration patients experience total visual loss. The area of the macula comprises about 5% of the retina and is responsible for about 35% of the visual field. The remaining 65% (the peripheral field) remains unaffected by the disease.
The loss of central vision profoundly affects visual functioning. It is not possible, for example, to read without central vision. Pictures which attempt to depict the central visual loss of macular degeneration with a black spot do not really do justice to the devastating nature of the visual loss. This can be demonstrated by printing letters 6 inches high on a piece of paper and attempting to identify them while looking straight ahead and holding the paper slightly to the side. Most people find this surprisingly difficult to do.
Similar symptoms with a very different etiology and different treatment can be caused by Epiretinal membrane or macular puckeror leaking blood vessels in the eye.
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study showed that a combination of high-dose beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc can reduce the risk of developing advanced AMD by about 25 percent in those patients who have earlier but significant forms of the disease. This is the only proven intervention to decrease the risk of advanced AMD at this time. A follow up study, Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 to study the potential benefits of lutein, zeaxanthine, and fish oil, is currently underway.
Anecortave acetate, (Retanne), is an anti-angiogenic drug that is given as an injection behind the eye (avoiding an injection directly into the eye) that is currently being studied as a potential way of reducing the risk of neovascular (or wet) AMD in high-risk patients. It is not used for the Dry form of AMD.
Studies are underway at Harvard, with the goal of reducing lipofuscin accumulation