Glaucoma causes damage to the optic nerve in the eye. However little is known about what caused the disease, it is traditionally attributed to increased pressure in the eye (known as 'intraocular pressure', and clinical treatments attempt to lower this pressure).
As part of the study Dr Francesca Cordeiro and his colleagues developed a new technology for visualising nerve cell damage in the retina, known as Detection of Apoptosing Retinal Cells and demonstrated that the so-called 'plaque' lesions in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, also leads to nerve cell death in the retina.
"Many even within medicine fail to realise that the retina, commonly examined by high street opticians when they look at the back of the eye, is actually an extension of brain tissue, travelling down the optic nerve into the back of the eye," Cordeiro said.
The researchers also showed that drugs that worked to prevent the build up of the beta-amyloid protein in Alzheimer brains could be used to treat glaucoma in animal models.
One such drug, Bapineuzumab, is already being used in clinical trials to treat Alzheimer's patients by pharmaceutical companies Elan in Dublin and Wyeth in the US. However, the UK researchers showed that when combined with two other novel Alzheimer's treatments, the effects on glaucoma are even stronger.
"We are trying a new approach which has never been tried before, not even to treat Alzheimer's disease," Cordeiro said.
The findings of the study were published in the August issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.