Optic Atrophy

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Optic Atrophy


Optic atrophy can be defined as damage to the optic nerve resulting in a degeneration or destruction of the optic nerve. Optic atrophy may also be referred to as optic nerve head pallor because of the pale appearance of the optic nerve head as seen at the back of the eye. Possible causes of optic atrophy include: optic neuritis, Leber's hereditary optic atrophy, toxic or nutritional optic neuropathy, glaucoma, vascular disorders, trauma, and other systemic disorders.


The process of vision involves light entering the eye and triggering chemical changes in the retina, a pigmented layer lining the back of the eye. Nerve impulses created by this process travel to the brain via the optic nerve. Using a hand-held instrument called an ophthalmoscope, the doctor can see the optic nerve head (optic disc) which is the part of the optic nerve that enters at the back of the eyeball. In optic atrophy, the disc is pale and has fewer blood vessels than normal.

Causes and symptoms

Symptoms of optic atrophy are a change in the optic disc and a decrease in visual function. This change in visual function can be a decrease in sharpness and clarity of vision (visual acuity) or decreases in side (peripheral) vision. Color vision and contrast sensitivity can also be affected.

There are many possible causes of optic atrophy. The causes can range from trauma to systemic disorders. Some possible causes of optic atrophy include:

  • Optic neuritis. Optic neuritis is an inflammation of the optic nerve. It may be associated with eye pain worsened by eye movement. It is more common in young to middle-aged women. Some patients with optic neuritis may develop multiple sclerosis later on in life.
  • Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. This is a disease of young men (late teens, early 20s), characterized by an onset over a few weeks of painless, severe, central visual loss in one eye, followed weeks or months later by the same process in the other eye. At first the optic disc may be slightly swollen, but eventually there is optic atrophy. The visual loss is generally permanent. This condition is hereditary. If a patient knows that Leber's runs in the family, genetic counseling should be considered.
  • Toxic optic neuropathy. Nutritional deficiencies and poisons can be associated with gradual vision loss and optic atrophy, or with sudden vision loss and optic disc swelling. Toxic and nutritional optic neuropathies are uncommon in the United States, but took on epidemic proportions in Cuba in 19921993. The most common toxic optic neuropathy is known as tobacco-alcohol amblyopia, thought to be caused by exposure to cyanide from tobacco smoking, and by low levels of vitamin B12 because of poor nutrition and poor absorption associated with drinking alcohol. Other possible toxins included ethambutol, methyl alcohol (moonshine), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), cyanide, lead, and carbon monoxide. Certain medications have also been implicated. Nutritional optic neuropathy may be caused by deficiencies of protein, or of the B vitamins and folate, associated with starvation, malabsorption, or alcoholism.
  • Glaucoma. Glaucoma may be caused by an increase of pressure inside the eye. This increased pressure may eventually affect the optic nerve if left untreated.
  • Compressive optic neuropathy. This is the result of a tumor or other lesion putting pressure on the optic nerve. Another possible cause is enlargement of muscles involved in eye movement seen in hyperthyroidism (Graves' disease).
  • Retinitis pigmentosa. This is a hereditary ocular disorder.
  • Syphilis. Left untreated, this disease may result in optic atrophy.


Diagnosis involves recognizing the characteristic changes in the optic disc with an ophthalmoscope, and measuring visual acuity, usually with an eye chart. Visual field testing can test peripheral vision. Color vision and contrast sensitivity can also be tested. Family history is important in the diagnosis of inherited conditions. Exposure to poisons, drugs, and even medications should be determined. Suspected poisoning can be confirmed through blood and urine analysis, as can vitamin deficiency.

Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may show a tumor or other structure putting pressure on the optic nerve, or may show plaques characteristic of multiple sclerosis, which is frequently associated with optic neuritis. However, similar MRI lesions may appear in Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Mitochondrial DNA testing can be done on a blood sample, and can identify the mutation responsible for Leber's.

Visual evoked potentials (VEP), which measure speed of conduction over the nerve pathways involved in sight, may detect abnormalities in the clinically unaffected eye in early cases of Leber's. Fluorescein angiography gives more detail about blood vessels in the retina.


Treatment of optic neuritis with steroids is controversial. As of mid-1998, there is no known treatment for Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Treatment of other causes of optic atrophy varies depending upon the underlying disease.


Many patients with optic neuritis eventually develop multiple sclerosis. Most patients have a gradual recovery of vision after a single episode of optic neuritis, even without treatment. Prognosis for visual improvement in Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy is poor, with the specific rate highly dependent on which mitochondrial DNA mutation is present. If the cause of toxic or nutritional deficiency optic neuropathy can be found and treated early, such as stopping smoking and taking vitamins in tobacco-alcohol amblyopia, vision generally returns to near normal over several months' time. However, visual loss is often permanent in cases of long-standing toxic or nutritional deficiency optic neuropathy.


People noticing a decrease in vision (central and/or side vision) should ask their eye care practitioner for a check up. Patients should also go for regular vision exams. Patients should ask their doctor how often that should be, as certain conditons may warrant more frequent exams. Early detection of inflammations or other problems lessens the chance of developing optic atrophy.


Atrophy A destruction or dying of cells, tissues, or organs.

Cerebellar Involving the part of the brain (cerebellum), which controls walking, balance, and coordination.

Mitochondia A structure in the cell responsible for producing energy. A defect in the DNA in the mitochondria is involved in Leber's optic neuropathy.

Neuritis An inflammation of the nerves.

Neuropathy A disturbance of the nerves, not caused by an inflammation. For example, the cause may be toxins, or unknown.

As of mid 1998, there are no preventive measures that can definitely abort Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy in those genetically at risk, or in those at risk based on earlier involvement of one eye. However, some doctors recommend that their patients take vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, or other antioxidants, and that they avoid the use of tobacco or alcohol. Patients should ask their doctors about the use of vitamins. Avoiding toxin exposure and nutritional deficiency should prevent toxic or nutritional deficiency optic neuropathy.



American Academy of Neurology. 1080 Montreal Ave., St. Paul, MN 55116. (612) 695-1940. http://www.aan.com.

Prevent Blindness America. 500 East Remington Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173. (800) 331-2020. http://www.preventblindness.org.