Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is a mitochondrially inherited (transmitted from mother to offspring) degeneration of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and their axons that leads to an acute or subacute loss of central vision; this affects predominantly young adult males. However, LHON is only transmitted through the mother as it is primarily due to mutations in the mitochondrial (not nuclear) genome and only the egg contributes mitochondria to the embryo. LHON is usually due to one of three pathogenic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) point mutations. These mutations are at nucleotide positions 11778 G to A, 3460 G to A and 14484 T to C, respectively in the ND4, ND1 and ND6 subunit genes of complex I of the oxidative phosphorylation chain in mitochondria. Men cannot pass on the disease to their offspring.
Clinically, there is an acute onset of visual loss, first in one eye, and then a few weeks to months later in the other. Onset is usually young adulthood, but age range at onset from 7-75 is reported. The age of onset is slightly higher in females (range 19–55 years: mean 31.3 years) than males (range 15–53 years: mean 24.3). The male to female ratio varies between mutations: 3:1 for 3460 G>A, 6:1 for 11778 G>A and 8:1 for 14484 T>C.
This typically evolves to very severe optic atrophy and permanent decrease of visual acuity. Both eyes become affected either simultaneously (25% of cases) or sequentially (75% of cases) with a median inter-eye delay of 8 weeks. Rarely only one eye may be affected. In the acute stage, lasting a few weeks, the affected eye demonstrates an edematous appearance of the nerve fiber layer especially in the arcuate bundles and enlarged or telangectatic and tortuous peripapillary vessels (microangiopathy). The main features are seen on fundus examination, just before or subsequent to the onset of visual loss. A pupillary defect may be visible in the acute stage as well. Examination reveals decreased visual acuity, loss of color vision and a cecocentral scotoma on visual field examination.
"LHON Plus" is a name given to rare strains of the disorder with eye disease together with other conditions. The symptoms of this higher form of the disease include loss of the brain's ability to control the movement of muscles, tremors, and cardiac arrhythmia. Many cases of LHON plus have been comparable to multiple sclerosis because of the lack of muscular control.
Leber hereditary optic neuropathy is a condition related to changes in mitochondrial DNA. Although most DNA is packaged in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria have a distinct mitochondrial genome composed of mtDNA.
Mutations in the MT-ND1, MT-ND4, MT-ND4L, and MT-ND6 genes cause Leber hereditary optic neuropathy. These genes code for the NADH dehydrogenase protein involved in the normal mitochondrial function of oxidative phosphorylation. Oxidative phosphorylation uses a series of four large multienzyme complexes, which are all embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane to convert oxygen and simple sugars to energy. Mutations in any of the genes disrupt this process to cause a variety of syndromes depending on the type of mutation and other factors. It remains unclear how these genetic changes cause the death of cells in the optic nerve and lead to the specific features of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy.
Leber hereditary optic neuropathy cannot be prevented.
Without a known family history of LHON the diagnosis usually requires a neuro-ophthalmological evaluation and blood testing for mitochondrial DNA assessment. It is important to exclude other possible causes of vision loss and important associated syndromes such as heart electrical conduction system abnormalities. The prognosis for those affected left untreated is almost always that of continued significant visual loss in both eyes. Regular corrected visual acuity and perimetry checks are advised for follow up of affected individuals. There is beneficial treatment available for some cases of this disease especially for early onset disease. Also, experimental treatment protocols are in progress. Genetic counselling should be offered. Health and lifestyle choices should be reassessed particularly in light of toxic and nutritional theories of gene expression. Vision aides assistance and work rehabilitation should be used to assist in maintaining employment.
For those who are carriers of a LHON mutation, preclinical markers may be used to monitor progress. For example fundus photography can monitor nerve fiber layer swelling. Optical coherence tomography can be used for more detailed study of retinal nerve fiber layer thickness. Red green color vision testing may detect losses. Contrast sensitivity may be diminished. There could be an abnormal electroretinogram or visual evoked potentials. Neuron-specific enolase and axonal heavy chain neurofilament blood markers may predict conversion to affected status.
Despite the severe visual impairment, some will gain some recovery of sight. The degree is highly variable and it is most likely with the 14484 mutation. The penetrance varies between mutations but by and large males have a 40% chance of becoming blind some time in their lives and females a 10% chance.
Avoiding optic nerve toxins is generally advised, especially tobacco and alcohol. Certain prescription drugs are known to be a potential risk, so all drugs should be treated with suspicion and checked before use by those at risk. Ethambutol, in particular, has been implicated as triggering visual loss in carriers of LHON. In fact, toxic and nutritional optic neuropathies may have overlaps with LHON in symptoms, mitochondrial mechanisms of disease and management. Of note, when a patient carrying or suffering from LHON or toxic/nutritional optic neuropathy suffers a hypertensive crisis as a possible complication of the disease process, nitroprusside (trade name: Nipride) should not be used due to increased risk of optic nerve ischemia in response to this anti-hypertensive in particular.
Idebenone has been shown in a small placebo controlled trial to have modest benefit in about half of patients. People most likely to respond best were those treated early in onset.
α-Tocotrienol-quinone, a vitamin E metabolite, has had some success in small open label trials in reversing early onset vision loss.
There are various treatment approaches which have had early trials or are proposed, none yet with convincing evidence of usefulness or safety for treatment or prevention including brimonidine, minocycline, curcumin, glutathione, near infrared light treatment, and viral vector techniques.
"Three person in vitro fertilisation" is a proof of concept research technique for preventing mitochondrial disease in developing human fetuses. So far, viable macaque monkeys have been produced. But ethical and knowledge hurdles remain before use of the technique in humans is established