The Retina Reveals Clues About Eye Disease

Neuronal connections are as crucial to brain function as the neurons themselves. But how these specialized cells of the brain make and maintain proper connections is still murky.

William Brunken, professor of cell biology and director of ophthalamic research at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, studies the organization of cells in the retina and the molecular regulators involved.

The retina of the eye is like a tiny piece of the brain, Brunken says, with all the structures and functions contained in an easy-to-study compartment. The information gleaned from his basic research studies will provide novel targets for drugs to treat diseases of the eye, such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic-related retinal disease.

One of these regulators is a protein called laminin, which occurs in the space between cells. “Laminin is important in regulating brain and eye development,” he says.

In adult brain tissue, laminin serves as a docking site for surrounding blood vessels to interact with brain cells. “Laminin corrals all these transporters together and aligns them between the blood vessel and the neuron” he says. Transporters are molecular complexes that load and unload gases and nutrients to energy-hungry neurons.

Brunken’s group has been instrumental in showing that laminin serves a similar docking function to aid neuronal communication. The molecular complexes on both the sending and receiving cell must be aligned for efficient signaling.

Brunken collaborates with eye researchers at other SUNY campuses through the SUNY Eye Institute, founded in 2009.

The SUNY Eye Institute is a consortium of the vision researchers from all four academic medical centers in the SUNY system (Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, Stony Brook, and Buffalo) and the SUNY College of Optometry. It is part of a larger research initiative called SUNY REACH (Research Excellence in Academic Health), which aims to achieve national and international pre-eminence in biomedical research through collaborative processes and shared resources.

“By bringing together five different institutions to work toward the common research goal of eradicating blinding disorders, the SUNY Eye Institute can accomplish more than each institution could on its own,” says Brunken, who co-directs the Institute along with Dr. John Hoepner, at Upstate and Dr. David Troilo SUNY College of Optometry.

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