If you have ever been diagnosed with an eye condition such as macular degeneration or cataracts, the doctor might have told you: "All we can do is watch and track the disease's progress. It will inevitably get worse, and there is no way to reverse or regenerate the deterioration. At a certain point, I can offer pharmaceutical or surgical options that may slow down the progress but not reverse it."
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. And you should know that there is a growing body of research showing that the opposite is true!
Ever heard of neurogenesis?
Despite what you might have been told, we've known for some time that neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain) can occur in the hippocampus of the brain, which plays a critical role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia and influences emotional behavior and cognition. Researchers have also found that patients with higher BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels have a decreased risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. This was attributed to the critical role that BDNF plays in stimulating the growth neurons in the central nervous system (CNS).
You might be wondering why we're talking about the brain when we were supposed to be discussing eye health, but by expanding on the findings from the brain, researchers began to explore where else the regeneration of neurons could take place. A logical starting point was the eyes because the eyes are a part of the central nervous system and actually grow from the brain during fetal development. So what did researchers find?
The eyes have cells that can regenerate too.
How do we know this? Researchers found that cells in the eyes—specifically retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are responsible for transmitting information from the eyes to the brain—are capable of regeneration, too. This is groundbreaking.
How to protect and preserve your eye health.
Empowered with the knowledge that retinal cells play a critical role in communicating information from the eye to brain, researchers have begun to develop a suite of potential treatments and therapies. Regeneration therapies are therapies that look to regenerate and stimulate the growth of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). In particular, the three unique methods receiving attention from researchers today are:
1. Stem cell therapy:
Stem cell therapy could be used to grow RGCs. These lab-grown cells would be transplanted into the patient’s retina. However, this approach is easier said than done. It can take weeks to produce adequate quantities of stem cells, and the storage of stem cells is difficult because you do not know when the patient will need them—and timing is everything.
2. Reprogramming therapies:
The second strategy involves recruiting other retinal cells for reprogramming into RGCs. Interestingly, there are other species of animal that do this naturally. Zebrafish, for example, reprogram cells in order to regenerate new RGCs. This approach is being explored by researchers to treat a number of eye conditions, such as macular degeneration and even genetically inherited retinal disorders.
3. Preservation therapies:
Preservation therapies aim to keep people's eyes healthy by utilizing therapies that maintain the retina’s structure so that transplanted or regenerated RGCs can better integrate and restore vision. Preservation therapies are particularly exciting for those who have a family history of eye disease or a genetic predisposition to eye disease.
Can I stimulate ocular regeneration at home?
The future of regenerating eye tissue looks promising. There has been great progress in developing therapies, which is exciting, but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) wait for these treatment therapies to become widely available. There are a number of ways that you can stimulate the regeneration of RGCs in the eye at home.
Just like in the brain, BDNF is important for the neurons in the eye. One study assessed the effectiveness of boosting BDNF levels in the eye after the test subject had suffered an optic nerve crush. Researchers found that applying BDNF to the eye significantly improved RGC survival. One week later, RGC survival was improved by 17 percent, and two weeks later, RGC survival was increased to 55 percent. While this is an animal study, researchers cited no reasons that the human eye would respond differently. Given what we know about BDNF’s role in facilitating regeneration of neurons in the brain, it would be a safe guess to say that BDNF is a powerhouse for ocular degeneration as well. In other words, we can reverse and heal damage due to traumatic injuries or degenerative diseases by boosting our BDNF levels. This is powerful information! Here's how to do it:
- Do aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes per day.
- Get 30 minutes of sunlight per day.
- Try intermittent fasting. Fasting rests your digestive system and stimulates healing.
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids.
- Add pre-probiotic fiber to your diet. Gut bacteria converts prebiotics into butyrate, a substance that has been shown to increase BDNF.
- Eat curcumin to enhance mood and cognition and improve BDNF production.
- Eliminate sugar and processed foods.
- Drink antioxidant-rich green tea.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Cultivate positive relationships.
- Add resveratrol and other polyphenols to your diet for their neuroprotective properties.
- Get good-quality sleep.
- Reduce your stress levels. Irregular cortisol levels can disrupt BDNF production.
- Add magnesium to your diet. It’s estimated more than 50 percent of Americans are deficient in this mineral.
- Add zinc to your diet. This trace mineral has antidepressant qualities and can increase BDNF levels in the brain.
- Add these foods with eye-healthy nutrients to your diet.
For a long time, we have known that regularly monitoring eye health is critical for identifying eye disease at an early stage. Now, researchers understand that not only can we prevent visual deterioration, but we can actually repair and regenerate damage from eye diseases at any age. With more than 50 million Americans suffering from vision problems, this is one of the most important areas of scientific advancement in the coming years.
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