Laser photocoagulation treatment of the central retina is often complicated by an immediate side effect of visual impairment, caused by the unavoidable laser-induced destruction of the normal tissue lying adjacent to the lesion and not affected directly by the laser beam. Furthermore, accidental laser injuries are at present untreatable. A neuroprotective therapy for salvaging the normal tissue might enhance the benefit obtained from treatment and allow safe perifoveal photocoagulation. We have developed a rat model for studying the efficacy of putative neuroprotective compounds in ameliorating laser-induced retinal damage. Four compounds were evaluated: the corticosteroid methylprednisolone, the glutamate-receptor blocker MK- 801, the anti-oxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, and the calcium-overload antagonist flunarizine. The study was carried out in two steps: in the first, the histopathological development of retinal laser injuries was studied. Argon laser lesions were inflicted in the retinas of 18 pigmented rats. The animals were killed after 3, 20 or 60 days and their retinal lesions were evaluated under the light microscope. The laser injury mainly involved the outer layers of the retina, where it destroyed significant numbers of photoreceptor cells. Over time, evidence of two major histopathological processes was observed: traction of adjacent normal retinal cells into the central area of the lesion forming an internal retinal bulging, and a retinal pigmented epithelial proliferative reaction associated with subretinal neovascularization and invasion of the retinal lesion site by phagocytes. The neuroprotective effects of each of the four compounds were verified in a second step of the study. For each drug tested, 12 rats were irradiated with argon laser inflictions: six of them received the tested agent while the other six were treated with the corresponding vehicle. Twenty days after laser exposure, the rats were killed and their lesions were subjected to image-analysis morphometry. The extent of retinal destruction was assessed by measuring the lesion diameter and the amount of photoreceptor cell loss in the outer nuclear layer. Methylprednisolone and MK-801 were shown to ameliorate laser-induced retinal damage, whereas both superoxide dismutase and flunarizine were ineffective. Furthermore, MK-801 diminished the proliferative reaction of the retinal pigment epithelial cells. On the basis of our results we suggest that the pigmented rat model is suitable for studying and screening various compounds for their neuroprotective efficacy in treating retinal laser injury. We further suggest that glutamate might play a key role in mediating retinal injury induced by laser irradiation.
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