Glaucoma, Curcumin, and Autoimmunity: Exploring the Research

Updated on September 30, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She often writes about the scientific basis of disease.

A simulation of glaucoma
A simulation of glaucoma | Source

New Discoveries Related to Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a potentially serious eye problem. In the most common form of the disease, fluid builds up in the eyeball. The fluid creates pressure that damages the retinal ganglion cells located at the back of the eyeball. The long fibers of these cells are known as axons and form the optic nerve. The nerve is vital for vision because it transmits signals from the eye to the brain. If glaucoma is not treated and the optic nerve is damaged, vision loss and even blindness may result.

Researchers have recently discovered that a chemical called curcumin from turmeric helps to treat early glaucoma in rats when formulated correctly. The chemical may be helpful in humans as well. Other researchers have found evidence supporting the idea that glaucoma is an autoimmune disease. If this idea is true, new and more effective treatments may be created.

Anatomy of the eye
Anatomy of the eye | Source

Parts of the Eye

In order to understand the problem that contributes to vision loss in glaucoma, it's helpful to know a little about the anatomy of the eye. The cornea is the transparent layer over the front of the eye. The iris is the colored part of the eye. It has a circular gap in the center called the pupil. The pupil allows light rays to reach and travel through the lens, which is located behind the iris. The size of the pupil varies, depending on light conditions. The light rays travel through the vitreous humour located behind the lens and then strike the retina.

The light triggers the creation of electrical nerve impulses in the retina. Retinal ganglion cells are located at the back of the retina. They send impulses along the optic nerve to the brain, which produces an image.

Source

What Is Glaucoma?

The spaces between the cornea and the lens are filled with a fluid called aqueous humor, which provides nourishment to eye tissues. The aqueous humor is secreted by the ciliary body, moves through the posterior chamber behind the iris, and then travels through the anterior chamber in front of the iris. It's removed through drainage canals located between the edge of the iris and the cornea.

If the fluid exit area is narrowed or the drainage canals are blocked, an insufficient quantity of fluid may leave the eye. Intraocular pressure (the pressure inside the eyeball) may then increase. The pressure is transmitted through the largest chamber of the eye, which is filled with a gel known as vitreous humor, and then presses on the retina at the back of the eyeball. This damages the retinal ganglion cells and the optic nerve produced from their axons.

It should be noted that optic nerve damage and glaucoma sometimes develop without an increase in fluid pressure within the eyeball. This suggests that we don’t completely understand the condition yet. Unfortunately, people may not notice a vision problem or seek medical help until the disease is quite advanced and a considerable number of retinal ganglion cells have been lost.

The earliest symptoms of glaucoma include the loss of peripheral vision, as shown in the simulation at the start of this article. Initially, vision loss will probably be milder than that shown in the photo and the condition may progress slowly. Eventually, central vision may be lost.

Disease Description by an Eye Doctor

The Turmeric Plant and Spice

Turmeric is a flowering plant in the ginger family (the Zingiberaceae) that’s native to India and Southeast Asia. Its rhizome, or underground stem, is used to create a yellow-orange powder. The powder is used as a spice and is also known as turmeric. Curcumin is a chemical in the spice.

Turmeric and curcumin might be capable of providing several wonderful health benefits. It’s been hard to prove this, though. For example, turmeric is a popular component of the diet in India and Asia. It has been noted that the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is significantly lower in these parts of the world than in other areas. The Alzheimer’s Society in the UK says that turmeric ingestion is unlikely to be responsible for this observation, however. Interestingly, they don’t completely dismiss the benefit of the spice. They note that in lab equipment curcumin has been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-amyloid properties. Abnormal brain deposits of a protein called beta-amyloid are a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric
Turmeric | Source

We have some evidence, if you look at the in vitro cellular studies, if you look at animal studies, the evidence is very strong. But humans are not animals. We need to provide more evidence from clinical trials … to get solid evidence of the health benefits of curcumin.

— Professor Manohar Garg, University of Newcastle, via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Improving the Absorption of Curcumin

One problem with obtaining the required proof for its benefit might be that curcumin is poorly absorbed by the gut. Benefits demonstrated in cells or tissue in lab equipment are not always duplicated in the body. A patient would have to take a huge dose of turmeric or curcumin in order to absorb enough to be helpful (assuming the substance is beneficial for the patient’s condition). This would not only be inconvenient but would likely cause gastrointestinal distress. There is hope that the absorption of curcumin will soon be improved, however.

Ingesting black pepper with curcumin or turmeric increases the bioavailability of curcumin by around 2,000 percent. Bioavailability is the proportion of a drug that has an active effect in the body. A new discovery may be even more helpful. Researchers in Britain have created a nanocarrier for curcumin that they say increases its solubility in eye drops by an amazing 400,000 times. In addition to the increased solubility, another advantage of the nanocarrier is that it would enable doctors to place the substance directly in the eyes instead of providing an oral medication.

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The word “nanoparticle” general refers to particles with a diameter of one to a hundred nanometers. A nanocarrier is a molecule or particle on the nanoscale that is used to carry medicinal drugs through the body. The carrier may be a little larger than a traditionally-defined nanoparticle but is still very tiny. A nanocarrier has features that enable it to effectively ferry a drug to the area where it’s needed. Without the carrier, the drug may not be absorbed by the correct area.

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions affecting over 60 million people worldwide that leads to irreversible blindness in 1 in 10 cases.

— University College London, via ScienceDaily

Curcumin in a Rat Model of Glaucoma

The term “animal model” is often used by researchers. The term means that although it seems that a lab animal has the same disease as humans, we can’t be absolutely certain that the disorder is the same or is occurring by the same processes as in the human body. A discovery in lab animals often applies to humans, but this isn’t always the case.

Scientists at University College London and Imperial College London recently used a rat model to study the effect of curcumin attached to a nanocarrier on glaucoma. The scientists administered the eye drop medication twice a day over a period of three weeks to rats who had retinal ganglion loss. Another group of rats with the same condition was untreated. The further loss of retinal ganglion cells was significantly reduced in the treated rats compared to the untreated ones and there were no signs of eye irritation from the treatment.

Current treatments for glaucoma include eye drops, laser treatment, and surgery. Eye drops containing one of a variety of drugs are commonly used. The drugs reduce fluid buildup and pressure in the eye by various methods. They are often helpful but can also produce side effects. In addition, in some patients retinal ganglion cells continue to be harmed even when intraocular pressure is normal. A medication such as curcumin might be very useful in protecting cells in the retina.

Types of Glaucoma

There are several kinds of T cells, or T lymphocytes as they are sometimes called. They are a type of white blood cell and are a very important part of our immune system. They are known as "T" cells because they mature in the thymus gland.

The Possible Role of T Cells

An autoimmune condition is one in which our immune system mistakenly attacks our body’s own tissues. The immune system is supposed to protect us from pathogens that cause disease or harm, which it often does admirably (though it sometimes needs help). Its attack on our cells can cause a range of health problems.

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute, and other institutions has found evidence suggesting that glaucoma is—or is at least sometimes—an autoimmune disease. Like other observers, the researchers have noticed that in both humans and mice, even when intraocular pressure decreases, vision sometimes continues to get worse. This has suggested to the researchers that some other progressive condition occurs in the disease.

The researchers found T cells in the retina of mice with glaucoma (or with a disease closely resembling it). T cells are important in the immune system’s attack on an invader. The discovery was puzzling because T cells are normally prevented from entering the retina by the blood-retina barrier, which is a tightly-packed layer of cells. In mice, when intraocular pressure was high, the T cells were able to pass through this barrier.

Other researchers involved in the study had mice without T cells in their lab. The scientists triggered an increase in intraocular pressure in the mice, which caused a small amount of damage to their retina. When the scientists reduced the pressure, no further damage to the retina occurred.

Heat Shock Proteins and Autoimmunity

Additional studies by the Massachusetts researchers discovered how T cells may damage the retina in glaucoma patients. The presence of the cells appears to hinder molecules known as heat shock proteins. These molecules help cells to respond to stress and injuries.

Heat shock proteins in bacteria and humans are quite similar. The researchers suspect that the T cells that entered the retina had been “programmed” to target the human proteins after coming into contact with the bacterial ones.

Perhaps very significantly, the researchers found that people with glaucoma had five times the usual level of T cells that target heat shock proteins. The researchers don’t believe that a specific bacterium is required to create these T cells but think that the production is a response to the presence of bacteria in general. Interestingly, when the researchers tried to trigger glaucoma in a group of mice that contained no bacteria, they were unable to do so.

T cells in our body normally don't target our own heat shock proteins, but in glaucoma patients some may do so. This is a type of autoimmune response. When the abnormal T cells enter the retina due to high intraocular pressure, they may damage the retinal ganglion cells and may continue to do so after the pressure is reduced.

The disease often goes undetected at first; patients may not realize they have the disease until half of their retinal ganglion cells have been lost.

— Anne Trayvon, MIT News Office

The Hope of Improved Treatments

The new discoveries are intriguing, but further research is needed. We need to discover whether the specially-formulated curcumin helps humans as well as rats. We also need to understand glaucoma better. An autoimmune response may be involved in some people with the disease but not in everyone. It's puzzling that some people suffer from glaucoma without developing high intraocular pressure.

Despite the need for further investigations, the recent discoveries could be very significant and may lead to better treatments for the disease. In addition, the discoveries related to T cells may occur in other diseases, including some that occur in the brain and some other autoimmune conditions. T cells are common and important cells in our body, so if they “misbehave” the results can be serious.

It would be wonderful if the latest research eventually helps not only glaucoma patients but also people with other diseases. With respect to glaucoma, however, diagnosing the condition as soon as possible is important with current treatments and will probably still be important if new ones are created. This is one reason why it's important to get our eyes checked regularly by an ophthalmologist. A checkup is especially important for older people, who are more likely to get glaucoma than younger ones. An eye doctor can detect problems before a patient is aware of them. Fighting glaucoma by all of the methods that are currently available is advisable.

References

Information about glaucoma from the Glaucoma Research Foundation

Turmeric and dementia from the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK (Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia.)

What does the evidence say about turmeric's health benefits? from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

A review of curumin's effects on human health from the Foods journal, National Institutes of Health

Eye drops derived from turmeric might treat glaucoma from the ScienceDaily news service

Glaucoma may be an autoimmune disease from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Commensal microflora-induced T cell responses mediate progressive neurodegeneration in glaucoma from Nature Communications

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

  • Is turmeric a blood thinner?

    It may be. The evidence appears to be inconclusive at the moment. Some health agencies recommend that if someone is taking a medicine to reduce blood coagulation, or to thin their blood, they should ask their doctor about the advisability of taking turmeric or curcumin as well. Some suggest that high doses of turmeric or curcumin should be avoided until the situation is clearer. Even if curcumin is a blood thinner when taken orally, however, we don’t yet know if properly-formulated curcumin will have the same effect in a glaucoma medicine (if such a medicine is ever created for humans).

© 2018 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment. I always appreciate your visits. Actually, animals can get glaucoma. It's a shame when it happens in a pet.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      5 weeks ago from the short journey

      Such an interesting read on so many levels. I did not realize glaucoma might be an autoimmune disease. The more we learn about what our eyes have to say the more we understand how little we know about the human body and how different it is from an animal body. The old saying is true, in the end we are all just a lump of clay, but the life within us is full of mystery! The video comparing invaders to the body with invaders of a prosperous country helped put it in down-to-earth terms, but you always do a good job of writing posts to help every day people learn more about specific topics.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information, Glenn. I hope your eye pressure continues to stay under control.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      9 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Linda, you gave a lot of useful information about glaucoma in your article, and about the possible future cures with substances such as curcumin in turmeric. Your discussion of nanocarriers was extremely interesting too, and you explained it well. It’s good to know there is so much ongoing research on alternative solutions in the field of glaucoma.

      I’ve had narrow angle glaucoma and I have the laser treatment called Iridotomy to provide the proper drainage. It’s kept my pressure under control for over ten years now. I’m always interested in learning more about this condition, and your article was certainly very helpful.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      10 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I appreciate your comment, Ann. It would be sad to lose one's sight. Researchers are discovering some interesting factors that may eventually help eyesight, though, which is good.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      10 months ago from SW England

      This is fascinating, Linda. Glaucoma is a familiar word to me, as my father was an optometrist and told me all about various eye problems. He took good care of my eyes too!

      Reading all these details now is therefore interesting for me. Eyes are so important to look after, of course. For me, the worst thing I can imagine is to lose my sight; so many beautiful things to miss out on.

      Thanks for sharing all this information. You always manage to put it over in a clear and orderly fashion, good for the layman!

      Ann

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I appreciate the kind comment, Flourish. It would be wonderful if better treatments for glaucoma and other eye problems were created.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      11 months ago from USA

      Several older people I know have had glaucoma so I had special interest in reading this excellent hub. I hope that new research can continue to shed light on treatments for this disease.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the kind comment, Genna. I'm glad that you have no sign of glaucoma.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      11 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Linda this is a terrific article. I recently had my eyes checked and my optometrist said there was no sign of glaucoma. For years, I didn't know much about this malady, except it is not a pleasant experience and can be potentially devastating and cause blindness. This hub certainly clears up a lot of misunderstandings, and that there is hope for improved treatments.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the kind comment, Jackie. The other ingredient you are thinking of is probably black pepper. As I say in the article, it's known to boost the absorption of curcumin from turmeric very significantly. I agree with you that it definitely seems worth eating the combination (in moderation).

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      11 months ago from The Beautiful South

      Very interesting, Linda. I myself probably have no fear of Glaucoma (although I am checked regularly) my husband does since his father suffered badly from it.

      It probably would not hurt to up the Turmeric in our diets because even though it takes a bigger dose (and I read somewhere there is another ingredient that should be in it to make it beneficial and I do not recall what now) surely a steady diet may help, you think? Turmeric has so many benefit it would be wonderful if they could perfect it for beneficial consumption.

      Frustrating when we put so much money into things to help us to only find out it probably did not good at all.

      Keep up the good work. All your articles are fantastic.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing the interesting information, Dora. The turmeric plant could be very important.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      11 months ago from The Caribbean

      People in this region have recently grasped the importance of turmeric and are beginning to grow it, primarily because of its reputed benefit to the arthritis patient. It is great to know that it has potential benefit also to the health of the eyes. I particularly appreciate the information and explanations on glaucoma.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bede. Yes, plants seem to have a lot to offer us in terms of medicines. They are a wonderful resource. Thanks for the comment.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image

      Bede 

      11 months ago from Minnesota

      Hi Linda, this is hopeful news for those with early stage glaucoma. So far, my eyes are healthy, but I’m on the look out, as it were, because my dad has glaucoma. It's amazing when scientists discover medicines in common spices or plants.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Heidi. Thanks for the visit. It can be sad when people develop eye problems, especially if treatments aren't successful.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      11 months ago from Chicago Area

      Have friends who have had glaucoma and/or cataracts. Tough! And though I'm taking it for other reasons, glad to hear that turmeric might have some positive impact on eye health, too. Thanks for the info!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Savanna.

    • Petcessories profile image

      Savanna H 

      11 months ago

      I found this very interesting.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Audrey. Thanks for the visit. I should probably eat more turmeric than I do. It's an interesting spice. I like the idea of combining it with ginger in a tea.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      11 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I've been a turmeric and ginger tea drinker for years. Good to know turmeric may be helpful in the prevention of glaucoma. Enjoyed your informative hub very much. Thanks, Linda.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Maren.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

      11 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Nice details.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Mary. I'm hoping that researchers learn more about turmeric. It would be sad if the spice and curcumin can be helpful but we're not benefiting from the substances because we're not using them in the right way.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      11 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for the reminder around eye exam. I just had one in the Spring. My husband used to drink tumeric powder with pepper but we have no idea how helpful this was but further studies can enlighten us and there is much hope.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Peggy. Your advice about eye exams is excellent. I hope researchers discover the most effective way to use turmeric and curcumin and that the substances prove to very helpful.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm sorry that you have the condition, Manatita. I think more research into curcumin and the best way to absorb it is very important. The substance may have some wonderful benefits. Thank you very much for the comment.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      11 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This article of yours was most interesting. Everyone should have an annual eye exam. So many diseases can be caught in early stages if that is done...not only glaucoma. Using turmeric and black pepper together has been recommended for conditions like arthritis so it makes sense that it could possibly help in all autoimmune diseases.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      11 months ago from london

      A very thorough and educational as well as interesting report. Curcumin I have heard of and I have in fact used it with black pepper to fight off colds. Some say that the lycopene in tomatoes can also help with fighting Glaucoma.

      I have this condition and yes, it seems to be more prevalent in black and coloured people: I mean Asian, latin, middle-eastern and so forth. High Blood Pressure and Diabetes seem to affect us as well.

      Perhaps more research is need on Curcumin and other health products. Some naturopaths claim to be able to cure the disease. Wonderful Hub!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Liz. Better treatments would be great and a cure would be wonderful. I hope the research leads to good things.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and for sharing the information, Pamela. I hope you find relief from your osteoarthritis pain.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      11 months ago from UK

      I read your article with interest, as I have a relative who suffers with glaucoma. It can be quite life-limiting, as it progresses towards sight loss. I hope that progress can be made towards better treatment of the condition and even a cure in the future.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      11 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Linda, This is such an interesting article. I have never read about glaucoma being an autoimmune disease either. I learned a lot from your article.

      I was told by my orthopedic doctor to use tumeric for osteoarthritis to reduce the inflammation. I bought pills, but now I have read that actually using the tumeric root and making a paste is more beneficial.

      Thanks for an excellent article.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Bill. It's good that you've been checked for glaucoma. I'm glad your eyes are healthy.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      11 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating once again, Linda! I've worn glasses all my life, but thankfully glaucoma is not something I show signs of.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, John.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      11 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Linda, this was very interesting and very helpful to know, especially the fact that glaucoma may be an autoimmune disease. Thanks for sharing.

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