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Building a Wiring Diagram for the Retina to Help Researchers Save and Restore Vision

Connectome image

An image of an electrically connected patch of one single class of retinal neurons that signal brightness for the visual system. Each single cell is shaped like a spider or octopus and connected to its neighbors. This is the first visualization of such a population of cells that has been untangled from the complete connectome.

In simple terms, the retina is a thin, delicate layer of tissue lining the back of the eye that captures light like film or digital sensors in a camera. But the retina is actually an incredibly complex network of hundreds of millions cells that process light, converting it into electronic signals, which are sent to the brain and used to create the images we see. And, understanding the pathways of this gargantuan network — and how they are rewired with aging and disease — is helpful in trying to save and restore vision.

“If you are going to fix cells in the retina, you have to know how they communicate,” said Robert E. Marc, Ph.D., University of Utah, in the opening keynote lecture at the RD2016 meeting in Kyoto, Japan. Held September 19-24, RD2016 is the largest research conference dedicated exclusively to retinal degenerations, and funded in part by the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Dr. Marc and his colleagues have led the way in documenting the retina’s “connectome,” which he referred to as “the complete wiring diagram for the retina.” The size of the human retina’s connectome — or the number of pathways — is mind-blowingly large: 9 x101478. That’s a nine followed by 1478 zeroes!

“We are on a quest to understand the networks that encode color, form, motion, texture,” explained Dr. Marc. “Ultimately, we want to understand what happens when these networks engage in faulty rewiring or fail when neurons die in retinal degenerations.”

The key problem in analyzing a connectome is the mathematical diversity of the network. Dr. Marc said that finding and understanding the correct network is daunting, like decoding a new language.

Thus far, Dr. Marc and his team have built connectomes for the retinas of mice and rabbits, including a rabbit that is genetically engineered to have retinitis pigmentosa. They are currently working on a retinal connectome for a non-human primate, and plan to build one for humans.

“It takes about two years to build a connectome and several years to analyze it,” said Dr. Marc. “We have already homed in on several wiring anomalies for the rabbit model of RP and are working to understand how retinal prosthetics — that is, bionic retinas — interact with remodeled retinas.” All these efforts take a long time, because of the enormity and complexity of the networks.


5 Responses to 'Building a Wiring Diagram for the Retina to Help Researchers Save and Restore Vision'

  1. Jean Dayhoff says:

    I am in hopes to be kept in the loop to see if I may be able to get some help with my RP. I take no medications, have no HBlood pressure, no heart, no Diabetic, just my eyes.
    I did have migraines headaches when I was younger. Please help me in any way possible.
    I would even like to be in a study if possible.
    I am 78 yrs old, would love to drive again, plus I believe in being independent.

    Hope to hear from you
    Jean dayhoff

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Dear Jean, You should consider genetic testing to try and identify the mutant gene responsible for causing the disease. If the gene is identified, medical databases such as PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) can be searched to identify any research that is being conducted. With a molecular diagnosis, you may also qualify for gene therapy trials that are taking place. For information on genetic testing, please see the following web link to download a PDF document:
      http://www.blindness.org/sites/default/files/pages/pdfs/Genetic-Testing-Booklet-V5.2-20151023.pdf. You should also consider participating in FFB’s “My Retina Tracker”, a free registry that monitors clinical trials that are recruiting for various retinal diseases. For more information on “My Retina Tracker” please see the following web link:
      https://www.myretinatracker.org/

      Finally, you may find it helpful to periodically check the website: http://WWW.CLINICALTRIALS.GOV which is maintained by the National Institutes of Health and contains a searchable list of clinical trials for most known diseases. Each clinical trial listing will provide you with information on what the study is about, the requirements for participating and contact information. Thank you for your support that is helping to accelerate the development of new safe and effective treatments for inherited retinal disease.

  2. Dyllis Wells says:

    Received my In Focus today and it sounds very exciting that gene therapy has completed phase 3 and waiting for FDA approval. I hope this is soon before I lose more sight in both eyes. I have a telescope implant in one eye, will this disqualify me for gene or stem cell therapy when it becomes available.
    Thank you for all you do
    Regards
    Dyllis Wells
    Florida

  3. Ron says:

    I have a son he’s gonna 7 years on nov 30 and he has retinopathy of prematurity stage 5 he has retinal detachment both eyes.. And he was born premature.. Is there anything that could be done for him?
    Thank you
    ron
    Pennsylvania

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      Unfortunately, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is not a disease that we specialize in funding research for. We would encourage you to check out the National Eye Institutes page on ROP. Towards the right of this page you will see a link for some information on organizations and institutes that focus on research and resources for ROP and those who suffer from it.
      http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/rop/index.asp

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