Disruption in blood supply to active retinal circuits is the earliest hallmark of diabetic retinopathy (DR) and has been primarily attributed to vascular deficiency. However, accumulating evidence supports an early role for a disrupted neuronal function in blood flow impairment. Here, we tested the hypothesis that selectively stimulating cholinergic neurons could restore neurovascular signaling to preserve the capillary circulation in DR.
We used wild type (wt) and choline acetyltransferase promoter (ChAT)-channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) mice expressing ChR2 exclusively in cholinergic cells. Mice were made diabetic by streptozotocin (STZ) injections. Two to 3 months after the last STZ injection, the rate of capillary blood flow was measured in vivo within each retinal vascular layer using high speed two-photon imaging. Measurements were done at baseline and following ChR2-driven activation of retinal cholinergic interneurons, the sole source of the vasodilating neurotransmitter acetylcholine. After recordings, retinas were collected and assessed for physiological and structural features.
In retinal explants from ChAT-ChR2 mice, we found that channelrhodopsin2 was selectively expressed in all cholinergic amacrine cells. Its direct activation by blue light led to dilation of adjacent retinal capillaries. In living diabetic ChAT-ChR2 animals, basal capillary blood flow was significantly higher than in diabetic mice without channelrhodopsin. However, optogenetic stimulation with blue light did not result in flickering light-induced functional hyperemia, suggesting a necessity for a concerted neurovascular interaction.
These findings provide direct support to the utility and efficacy of an optogenetic approach for targeting selective retinal circuits to treat DR and its complications.