What is Optic Atrophy?

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  • Written By: Angela Crout-Mitchell
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 10 February 2020
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Optic atrophy is an eye condition that causes loss of vision in varying degrees, depending on the type of atrophy as well as the patient's individual condition. The most common symptom of this eye disorder is vision loss, and there is very rarely any pain associated with the disease. Some patients notice little change in their vision, while others experience severe loss. There are two main types of optic atrophy, acquired and congenital, which both result in vision loss, though other characteristics, such as time of onset, will vary. Treatment options are limited, but researchers are looking for ways to combat the damage to the optic nerve.

Both forms of optic atrophy affect the optic nerves of the eye, causing the fibers of the nerves to shrink and resulting in a serious loss of function. The optic nerves are technically part of the brain and are therefore unable to regenerate once the process has begun. Any type of damage to the optic nerve is usually irreversible, and patients with this disease have experienced moderate to severe vision loss after onset.


With acquired optic atrophy, the patient has some type of underlying condition that initiated the optic nerve disorder. Any medical condition that limits blood or oxygen flow to the optic nerve can result in acquired optic atrophy, as can inflammation of the optic nerve. Patients who suffer from tumors placing pressure on the nerve, as well as vitamin B12 deficiencies, can also be at a higher risk. In some cases, this type of eye disorder is the result of preexisting metabolic conditions such as diabetes mellitus and glaucoma.

There are two types of hereditary optic atrophy, known as dominant optic atrophy and Leber atrophy. In cases of the dominant optic atrophy, patients affected will likely experience vision loss in early childhood, while symptoms associated with Leber disorder typically manifest between the ages of 20 and 30. Almost every case of Leber atrophy affects males only, as it passes exclusively through the maternal genes to male children. The mutation that causes this condition affects the mitochondrial genome of the individual cells of the optic nerve.

Medical care and treatments for these conditions are limited and it is believed that early diagnosis can be useful in stopping any further nerve damage. In most cases of acquired atrophy, treatments can be prescribed that combat the compression or toxicity causing the original optic nerve degeneration. Researchers have begun exploring stem cell treatments for cases of optic atrophy as well as other neurological disorders, with some success.


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