Iron, zinc, and copper in retinal physiology and disease.
The essential trace metals iron, zinc, and copper play important roles both in retinal physiology and disease. They are involved in various retinal functions such as phototransduction, the visual cycle, and the process of neurotransmission, being tightly bound to proteins and other molecules to regulate their structure and/or function or as unbound free metal ions. Elevated levels of “free” or loosely bound metal ions can exert toxic effects, and in order to maintain homeostatic levels to protect retinal cells from their toxicity, appropriate mechanisms exist such as metal transporters, chaperones, and the presence of certain storage molecules that tightly bind metals to form nontoxic products. The pathways to maintain homeostatic levels of metals are closely interlinked, with various metabolic pathways directly and/or indirectly affecting their concentrations, compartmentalization, and oxidation/reduction states. Retinal deficiency or excess of these metals can result from systemic depletion and/or overload or from mutations in genes involved in maintaining retinal metal homeostasis, and this is associated with retinal dysfunction and pathology. Iron accumulation in the retina, a characteristic of aging, may be involved in the pathogenesis of retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Zinc deficiency is associated with poor dark adaptation. Zinc levels in the human retina and RPE decrease with age in AMD. Copper deficiency is associated with optic neuropathy, but retinal function is maintained. The changes in iron and zinc homeostasis in AMD have led to the speculation that iron chelation and/or zinc supplements may help in its treatment.