Flecks in Recessive Stargardt Disease: Short-Wavelength Autofluorescence, Near-Infrared Autofluorescence, and Optical Coherence Tomography

Janet R Sparrow, Marcela Marsiglia, Rando Allikmets, Stephen Tsang, Winston Lee, Tobias Duncker, Jana Zernant
Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science 2015, 56 (8): 5029-39

PURPOSE: We evaluated the incongruous observation whereby flecks in recessive Stargardt disease (STGD1) can exhibit increased short-wavelength autofluorescence (SW-AF) that originates from retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) lipofuscin, while near-infrared AF (NIR-AF), emitted primarily from RPE melanin, is usually reduced or absent at fleck positions.

METHODS: Flecks in SW- and NIR-AF images and spectral-domain optical coherence tomography (SD-OCT) scans were studied in 19 STGD1 patients carrying disease-causing ABCA4 mutations. Fleck spatial distribution and progression were recorded in serial AF images.

RESULTS: Flecks observed in SW-AF images typically colocalized with darkened foci in NIR-AF images; the NIR-AF profiles were larger. The decreased NIR-AF signal from flecks preceded apparent changes in SW-AF. Spatiotemporal changes in fleck distribution usually progressed centrifugally, but in one case centripetal expansion was observed. Flecks in SW-AF images corresponded to hyperreflective deposits that progressively traversed photoreceptor-attributable bands in SD-OCT images. Outer nuclear layer (ONL) thickness negatively correlated with expansion of flecks from outer to inner retina.

CONCLUSIONS: In the healthy retina, RPE lipofuscin fluorophores form in photoreceptor cells but are transferred to RPE; thus the SW-AF signal from photoreceptor cells is negligible. In STGD1, NIR-AF imaging reveals that flecks are predominantly hypofluorescent and larger and that NIR-AF darkening occurs prior to heightened SW-AF signal. These observations indicate that RPE cells associated with flecks in STGD1 are considerably changed or lost. Spectral-domain OCT findings are indicative of ongoing photoreceptor cell degeneration. The bright SW-AF signal of flecks likely originates from augmented lipofuscin formation in degenerating photoreceptor cells impaired by the failure of RPE.

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