Glaucoma is a disease in which the optic nerve is damaged, leading to progressive, irreversible loss of vision. It is often, but not always, associated with increased pressure of the fluid in the eye.
The nerve damage involves loss of retinal ganglion cells in a characteristic pattern. There are many different sub-types of glaucoma but they can all be considered as a type of optic neuropathy. Raised intraocular pressure is a significant risk factor for developing glaucoma (above 22 mmHg or 2.9 kPa). One person may develop nerve damage at a relatively low pressure, while another person may have high eye pressure for years and yet never develop damage. Untreated glaucoma leads to permanent damage of the optic nerve and resultant visual field loss, which can progress to blindness.
Glaucoma can be divided roughly into two main categories, “open angle” and “closed angle” glaucoma. Closed angle glaucoma can appear suddenly and is often painful; visual loss can progress quickly but the discomfort often leads patients to seek medical attention before permanent damage occurs. Open angle, chronic glaucoma tends to progress more slowly and the patient may not notice that they have lost vision until the disease has progressed significantly.
Glaucoma has been nicknamed the “sneak thief of sight” because the loss of vision normally occurs gradually over a long period of time and is often only recognized when the disease is quite advanced. Once lost, this damaged visual field can never be recovered. Worldwide, it is the second leading cause of blindness. It is also the first leading cause of blindness among African Americans. Glaucoma affects 1 in 200 people aged fifty and younger, and 1 in 10 over the age of eighty. If the condition is detected early enough it is possible to arrest the development or slow the progression with medical and surgical means.
The retinal system could benefit from use of cannabinoids, according to the study Endocannabinoids in the Retina: From Marijuana to Neuroprotection” from the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Stony Brook University in New York:
“The purpose of this review is to introduce the ‘cannabinergic’ field to the retinal community. All of the fundamental works on cannabinoids have been performed in non-retinal preparations, necessitating extensive dependence on this literature for background. Happily, the retinal cannabinoid system has much in common with other regions of the central nervous system. For example, there is general agreement that cannabinoids suppress dopamine release and presynaptically reduce transmitter release from cones and bipolar cells. How these effects relate to light and dark adaptations, receptive field formation, temporal properties of ganglion cells or visual perception are unknown. The presence of multiple endocannabinoids, degradative enzymes with their bioactive metabolites, and receptors provides a broad spectrum of opportunities for basic research and to identify targets for therapeutic application to retinal diseases.”
Another study at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom also points out the positive impact cannabinoids could have on glaucoma: “Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. In spite of the diverse therapeutic possibilities, new and better treatments for glaucoma are highly desirable. Cannabinoids effectively lower the intraocular pressure (IOP) and have neuroprotective actions. Thus, they could potentially be useful in the treatment of glaucoma. The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with an overview of the latest achievements in research into the potential use of cannabinoids for glaucoma.”