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The Blood-Retinal Barrier in the Management of Retinal Disease: EURETINA Award Lecture.

  • Cunha-Vaz, José1
  • 1 AIBILI - Association for Innovation and Biomedical Research on Light and Image, Coimbra, Portugal. , (Portugal)
Published Article
Ophthalmologica. Journal international d'ophtalmologie. International journal of ophthalmology. Zeitschrift fur Augenheilkunde
Publication Date
Feb 03, 2017
DOI: 10.1159/000455809
PMID: 28152535


Retinal diseases are the main causes of blindness in the Western world. Diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration continue to increase in prevalence and as main causes of vision loss. Intravitreal anti-VEGF and steroid injections have raised new expectations for their successful treatment. These agents act by stabilizing the blood-retinal barrier (BRB). Our group defined the BRB by identifying for the first time the tight junctions that unite retinal endothelial cells and are the basis for the inner BRB, an observation later confirmed in retinal pigment epithelial cells and in brain vessels. A major role of active transport processes was also identified. Today, the BRB is understood to play a fundamental role in retinal function in both health and disease. Retinal edema, an ubiquitous manifestation of retinal disease, is directly associated with breakdown of the BRB and with vision loss. In its most common form (i.e., vasogenic edema), due to breakdown of the BRB, Starling's law of capillary filtration may be used to interpret the mechanisms of fluid accumulation in the retina. The main factors involved in the development of retinal edema are BRB permeability, capillary hydrostatic pressure, tissue hydrostatic pressure, tissue osmotic pressure, and plasma osmotic pressure. In the clinical environment, breakdown of the BRB has been identified by fluorescein angiography and vitreous fluorometry, requiring the intravenous administration of fluorescein. An OCT-based method, OCT-Leakage, recently introduced by our group is capable of noninvasively identifying and quantifying sites of alteration of the BRB by mapping areas of lower-than-normal optical reflectivity, thus reflecting changes in the retinal extracellular fluid. We found good correspondence between the location of increased areas of low optical reflectivity identified by OCT-Leakage and the main sites of leakage on fluorescein angiography. Furthermore, with OCT-Leakage the areas of abnormal fluid accumulation can be identified in specific retinal layers, clearly offering more information than previously obtained with fluorescein angiography. OCT angiography has become available, replacing much of the information yielded by fluorescein angiography in a noninvasive manner. However, OCT angiography cannot visualize the leakage, i.e., the alteration of the BRB. OCT-Leakage is able to identify the locations of increases in extracellular fluid in the different layers of the retina. The complementarity of these 2 methods is of potential great interest for the diagnosis and management of several retinal diseases in which the presence and amount of fluid, as a marker of severity and activity, is paramount to treatment and management decisions in clinical practice.

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