Choroideremia is a rare genetic disorder causing progressive eyesight loss due to the wasting away of retinal layers. It first affects the choroid and the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) layers and finally the photoreceptor cell layer. Atrophy (wasting) of the optic nerve is also observed in choroideremia.
Formerly called tapetochoroidal dystrophy, choroideremia is a chronic form of retinal disease characterized by degeneration of the layers of the retina, which is the light-sensitive part of the eye. There are four main retinal layers: the outer neural retina, consisting of nerve cells and blood vessels; the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE); the choroid layer that contains connective eye tissue and a capillary layer (chorio capillaris); and the photoreceptor (light-sensitive) layer that contain the rods and cones, which function as detectors to process light, color and shape signals to the brain. Choroideremia is a progressive disease, meaning that the layers become affected one after the other over time.
The pigmentary changes in the RPE begin with fine spotting and continue with areas of depigmentation and increasing loss of the chorio capillaris. Chorio capillaris loss and degeneration of the larger choroidal blood vessels causes areas of bare sclera, the tough white fibrous tissue that covers the "white" of the eye. The disease begins in midperiphery of the choroid but then progresses to include the entire choroid.
Choroidal vessels provide oxygen and nutrients to both the RPE and the retina's photoreceptor cells. The RPE, which lies directly beneath the retina, supports the function of photoreceptor cells. Photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) convert light into the electrical impulses that transfer messages to the brain where "seeing" actually occurs. In the early stages of choroideremia, the choroid and the RPE begin to deteriorate. Eventually, photoreceptor
The age at which choroideremia first appears varies; initial symptoms (usually night blindness) may occur as early as three years of age and as late as 40 years. However, occurrence peaks between the ages of ten and 40. The visual field becomes progressively constricted, and patients usually reach legal blindness by 25 years of age. Loss of central vision usually occurs after the age of 35. However, in nearly all patients with choroideremia, visual acuity (acuteness or sharpness of vision) is well maintained until the late stages of the disease.
Choroideremia is an X-linked, recessive disorder, or a condition that is transmitted on the X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes; males have an X and a Y chromosome. Thus in females, the altered gene on one X chromosome can be masked by the normal gene on the other X chromosome. Female carriers—who may or may not be symptomatic—have a 50% chance of passing the X-linked abnormal gene to their daughters, who become carriers, and a 50% chance of passing the gene to their sons, who are then affected by the disease.
Choroideremia was the first of the retinal disorders to be mapped, the first to be cloned, and the first to have a simple protein test assigned to it. In 1991, Dr. Fran Cremers of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands isolated the gene believed to be responsible for choroiderermia. The gene for choroideremia was found on the Xq21 band of the X chromosome.
Although the choroideremia gene causes problems in the retina, choroid, and RPE, expression of this gene is not limited to the eyes. Choroideremia may also manifest as a generalized disorder. Choroideremia has been classified into two general types: isolated or associated.
In isolated choroideremia, which is the most common form of the disorder, affected individuals display only disease-related ocular symptoms.
Although relatively rare, associated choroideremia with mental retardation occurs in patients with a deletion of part of the X chromosome, including the region called Xq21. Such a deletion may cause choroideremia with severe mental retardation or with mental retardation and congenital deafness. In these individuals, the mothers are the carriers, showing the same deletions but not the severe clinical manifestations.
Choroideremia is believed to affect approximately one in 100,000 individuals—primarily men—although women who are carriers may exhibit mild symptoms as well. The disorder may be generally under-reported because there was no diagnostic test for choroideremia until the late 1990s.
In an area of northern Finland (the Sala region), for reasons that have yet to be determined, choroideremia has affected an unusually large number of people; about one in forty people have the disorder.
Signs and symptoms
A variety of other degenerations of the choroid may look like choroideremia. The decreased night and peripheral vision and diffuse pigmentary abnormalities seen in the early stages of the disorder are symptoms also seen in X-linked retinitis pigmentosa (one of a group of genetic vision disorders causing retinal degeneration). However, unlike retinitis pigmentosa, which starts in early childhood, the onset of choroideremia is variable and is rarely seen in childhood. The distinguishing feature of choroideremia is the diffuse choroidal atrophy that is uncommon in early retinitis pigmentosa.
Because the diffuse, progressive atrophy of the chorio capillaris and RPE layers begins peripherally and spreads centrally, central macular function is preserved until late in the course of the disease. Myopia occurs more frequently in men diagnosed with choroideremia. Although symptoms vary widely among affected individuals, men usually retain little or no useful vision beyond the age of 60.
Choroideremia is characterized by extensive abnormalities in the RPE layer. The initial symptoms include wasting of the retinal layers and choroid of the eye. The choroid (the vascular membrane located between the retina inside the eye and the sclera) contains large branched pigmented cells and prevents light rays from passing through areas of the eye outside of the pupils. Night blindness is usually the first noticeable symptom of choroideremia, usually occurring during childhood.
Degeneration of the vessels of the choroid and functional damage to the retina occur later in life and usually lead to progressive central vision field loss and eventual blindness. Small bony-like formations and scattered pigment clumps tend to accumulate in the middle portion and on the edges of the choroid. In addition, color vision is initially normal but may later evolve into tritanopia (color blindness in which there is an abnormality in the perception of blue).
Female carriers usually have no symptoms and have normal visual fields, normal electroretinograms (a measurement of electrical activity of the retina), and normal visual acuity. However, female carriers sometimes show abnormalities of the interior lining of the eye in the form of pigment spotting with tiny patches of RPE depigmentation. Brownish granular pigmentation and changes in the RPE and choroid may occur later. There is also some evidence to suggest that mild progression of symptoms—and even the full disease—may occur in a small number of female carriers.
Although there is no treatment for choroideremia because the disorder is so rare and has received relatively little research attention, a diagnostic blood test developed by Canadian researchers allows early diagnosis of the disorder. Patients with the abnormal choroideremia gene lack a protein called Rab Escort Protein-1 (REP-1), which is involved in the lipid (any one of a group of fats or fat-like substances) modification of protein—a process called prenylation. The test uses a monoclonal antibody (an antibody of exceptional purity and specificity, derived from a single cell) to determine the presence or absence of the REP-1 protein in blood samples. The REP-1 test is unable to determine carrier status, however; the REP-1 protein is present in female carriers.
Because no biochemical abnormality has been found in choroideremia, no single laboratory test is available for diagnosis. Rather, the diagnosis is based on the typical retinal abnormalities, abnormal electroretinogram findings, the progressive course of the disorder, and the combination of typical symptoms. Family history is also helpful in diagnosing the disorder. When the diagnosis is in doubt, examination of the mother usually reveals the pigmentary changes and other retinal abnormalities typically found in carriers.
Choroideremia is one of the few retinal degenerative disorders that may be detected before birth in some cases (in women who have been found to be carriers due to family history or abnormal ophthalmologic findings). All family members with a history of choroideremia are encouraged to consult an ophthalmologist and to seek genetic counseling. These professionals can explain the disease and the inheritance risk for all family members and for future offspring.
Treatment and management
There is no treatment for choroideremia because further research is needed to understand the exact mechanism causing this progressive loss of vision. It is not known whether any external environmental factors, such as light, contribute to the progression of the disease, or if genetic factors alone are responsible for the great variability observed. However, patients diagnosed with the disorder early are better able to make decisions regarding family planning and the onset of blindness.
Assistance for individuals with choroideremia is available through low-vision aids, including optical, electronic, and computer-based devices. Personal, educational, and vocational counseling, as well as adaptive training skills are also available through community resources.
Progression of the disease continues throughout the individual's life, although both the rate and degree of visual loss are variable among those affected, even within the same family.
Cremers, F.P.M., and F.F. Ropers. "Choroideremia." In The Metabolic and Molecular Basis of Disease. Ed. C.R. Scriver, A.L. Beaudet, W.S. Sly, and D. Valled, 4311–23, vol. 3. New York: McGraw Hill, 1995.
MacDonald, I. M., et al. "A Practical Diagnostic Test for Choroideremia." Opthalmology 105 (1998): 1637–40.
Majid, M. A., et al. "Unusual Macular Findings in a Known Choroideremia Carrier." Eye 12 (1998): 740–41.
Syed N., et al. "Evaluation of Retinal Photoreceptors and pigment epithelium in a female carrier of choroideremia." Opthalmology 108, no. 4 (April 2001): 711–20.
American Foundation for the Blind. 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. (800) 232-5463.
Choroideremia Research Foundation. 23 E. Brundreth St., Springfield, MA 01109. <http://www.choroideremia.org>.
National Association for Parents of the Visually Impaired. PO Box 317, Watertown, MA 02472. (617) 972-7441 or (800) 562-6265. <http://www.spedex.com/napvi>.
National Eye Institute. 31 Center Dr., Bldg. 31, Room6A32, MSC 2510, Bethesda, MD 20892-2510. <http://www.nei.nih.gov>.
National Federation for the Blind. 1800 Johnson St., Baltimore, MD 21230. (410) 659-9314. firstname.lastname@example.org. <http://www.nfb.org>.
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). PO Box 8923, New Fairfield, CT 06812-8923. (203) 746-6518 or (800) 999-6673. Fax: (203) 746-6481. <http://www.rarediseases.org>.
The Choroideremia Group. <http://www.onelist.com/subscribe.cgi.choroideremia>.
Genevieve T. Slomski, PhD