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Amblyopia is a developmental disorder that affects the spatial vision of one or both eyes in the absence of an obvious organic cause; it is associated with a history of abnormal visual experience during childhood. Subtypes have been defined based on the purported etiology, namely, strabismus (misaligned eyes) and/or anisometropia (unequal refractive error). Here we consider the usefulness of these subclassifications.
Amblyopia can be improved or eliminated more easily when treated early in life. Because amblyopia in older children is generally less responsive to treatment (Holmes et al., 2011), there is a premium on the early identification of amblyopia and its risk factors and the subsequent treatment thereof. Clinical preference is to institute treatment in children before 7 years of age when an optimal visual outcome is typically easier to obtain.
The shift in ocular dominance (OD) of binocular neurons induced by monocular deprivation is the canonical model of synaptic plasticity confined to a postnatal critical period. Developmental constraints on this plasticity not only lend stability to the mature visual cortical circuitry but also impede the ability to recover from amblyopia beyond an early window. Advances with mouse models utilizing the power of molecular, genetic, and imaging tools are beginning to unravel the circuit, cellular, and molecular mechanisms controlling the onset and closure of the critical periods of plasticity in the primary visual cortex (V1). Emerging evidence suggests that mechanisms enabling plasticity in juveniles are not simply lost with age but rather that plasticity is actively constrained by the developmental up-regulation of molecular ‘brakes’. Lifting these brakes enhances plasticity in the adult visual cortex, and can be harnessed to promote recovery from amblyopia. The reactivation of plasticity by experimental manipulations has revised the idea that robust OD plasticity is limited to early postnatal development. Here, we discuss recent insights into the neurobiology of the initiation and termination of critical periods and how our increasingly mechanistic understanding of these processes can be leveraged toward improved clinical treatment of adult amblyopia.
Although historically, treatment of amblyopia has been recommended prior to closure of a critical window in visual development, the existence and duration of that critical window is currently unclear. Moreover, there is clear evidence, both from animal and human studies of deprivation amblyopia, that there are different critical windows for different visual functions and that monocular and binocular deprivation have different neural and behavioral consequences. In view of the spectrum of critical windows for different visual functions and for different types of amblyopia, combined with individual variability in these windows, treatment of amblyopia has been increasingly offered to older children and adults. Nevertheless, treatment beyond the age of 7 years tends to be, on average, less effective than in younger children, and the high degree of variability in treatment response suggests that age is only one of many factors determining treatment response. Newly emerging treatment modalities may hold promise for more effective treatment of amblyopia at older ages. Additional studies are needed to characterize amblyopia by using new and existing clinical tests, leading to improved clinical classification and better prediction of treatment response. Attention also needs to be directed toward characterizing and measuring the impact of amblyopia on the patients’ functional vision and health-related quality of life.
There are many levels of disorder in amblyopic vision, from basic acuity and contrast sensitivity loss to abnormal binocular vision and global perception of motion and form. Amblyopia treatment via patching to restore acuity often leaves other aspects of vision deficient. The source for these additional deficits is unclear. Neural correlates of poor binocular function and acuity loss are found in V1 and V2. However, they are generally not sufficient to account for behaviorally measured vision loss. This review summarizes the known cortical correlates of visual deficits found in association with amblyopia, particularly those relevant to binocular vision and higher-order visual processing, in striate and extrastriate cortex. Recommendations for future research address open questions on the role of suppression and oculomotor abnormalities in amblyopic vision, and underexplored mechanisms such as top-down influences on information transmission in the amblyopic brain.
Unquestionably, the last six decades of research on various animal models have advanced our understanding of the mechanisms that underlie the many complex characteristics of amblyopia as well as provided promising new avenues for treatment. While animal models in general have served an important purpose, there nonetheless remain questions regarding the efficacy of particular models considering the differences across animal species, especially when the goal is to provide the foundations for human interventions. Our discussion of these issues culminated in three recommendations for future research to provide cohesion across animals models as well as a fourth recommendation for acceptance of a protocol for the minimum number of steps necessary for the translation of results obtained on particular animal models to human clinical trials. The three recommendations for future research arose from discussions of various issues including the specific results obtained from the use of different animal models, the degree of similarity to the human visual system, the ability to generate animal models of the different types of human amblyopia as well as the difficulty of scaling developmental timelines between different species.
Emerging technologies are now giving us unprecedented access to manipulate brain circuits, shedding new light on treatments for amblyopia. This research is identifying key circuit elements that control brain plasticity and highlight potential therapeutic targets to promote rewiring in the visual system during and beyond early life. Here, we explore how such recent advancements may guide future pharmacological, genetic, and behavioral approaches to treat amblyopia. We will discuss how animal research, which allows us to probe and tap into the underlying circuit and synaptic mechanisms, should best be used to guide therapeutic strategies. Uncovering cellular and molecular pathways that can be safely targeted to promote recovery may pave the way for effective new amblyopia treatments across the lifespan.