Underfed jumping spiders lose key vision cells, providing insights into age-related vision problems

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have made an intriguing discovery regarding the vision of underfed jumping spiders. Led by Professor Elke Buschbeck from the UC College of Arts and Sciences, the team found that these spiders, known for their exceptional eyesight, experience a loss of light-sensitive cells when they are undernourished. This unexpected finding could contribute to our understanding of age-related vision problems like macular degeneration.

Using a custom-made ophthalmoscope capable of capturing images of insect and spider retinas, the researchers stumbled upon dark spots on the photoreceptors of wild-caught bold jumping spiders. These spots indicated that the photoreceptors had either degenerated during the spiders’ lifetimes or during their development.

To ascertain whether the photoreceptors were genuinely degenerating or simply being affected by the experimental procedure, UC doctoral student Shubham Rathore employed electron microscopy. This technique confirmed that the cells were indeed dying.

The study emphasizes the potential of jumping spiders as a valuable model for investigating retinal and neuronal health. By exploring the connection between nutrition and vision in these creatures, researchers hope to gain insights into common age-related vision disorders such as macular degeneration.

The study detailing this discovery was published in the journal Vision Research. The implications of this research extend beyond the field of arachnology and may shed light on human vision health as well.

University of Cincinnati Professor Elke Buschbeck created a custom ophthalmoscope in her lab to study the vision of spiders and insects. Credit: Andrew Higley/UC

Did poor nutrition cause it?

Miranda Brafford and John Goté, both graduates of the University of Cincinnati, conducted a study to test the hypothesis further. They divided captive spiders into two groups: one group received a normal unrestricted diet, while the other group was given half-sized portions. The findings revealed that the underfed spiders experienced a greater loss of photoreceptors, particularly in the region of the retina with the highest concentration of these cells.

Buschbeck explained that this region is comparable to the macula in human eyes, responsible for processing visual information directly in front of us. Photoreceptors are demanding in terms of energy requirements, and when nutrition is insufficient, the system fails to sustain them.

The prevalence of macular degeneration, affecting approximately 20 million individuals in the United States, highlights the significance of this research. As the leading cause of age-related vision decline, macular degeneration currently has no cure. Buschbeck noted that there is evidence linking macular degeneration in humans to metabolic processes and challenges in energy delivery.

The parallels between the study findings in underfed jumping spiders and the metabolic aspects of macular degeneration in humans contribute to a better understanding of the condition and potentially offer insights into therapeutic approaches.

An image of a jumping spider’s retina shows damaged photoreceptors like dead pixels in a digital camera. Credit: Buschbeck Lab

Rathore and Buschbeck expressed their interest in investigating whether the degeneration of photoreceptors initiates in the supportive tissues surrounding them. Additionally, they aim to identify the specific nutrients that contribute to maintaining good visual health.

While the research findings offer intriguing insights, Annette Stowasser, an assistant professor in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences and senior author of the study, cautioned against drawing direct comparisons between vision deficits in spiders and humans. She emphasized the need for carefully designed studies to identify the exact nutrients involved, which could vary depending on environmental conditions and other factors.

Nonetheless, the observed effect of nutrient deprivation on spider vision underscores the importance of closely examining the impact of nutrients. Nathan Morehouse, director of UC’s Institute for Research in Sensing and a co-author of the study, highlighted the potential for unexpected breakthroughs in macular degeneration treatments for humans through research on common jumping spiders found in backyards across the United States.

He expressed enthusiasm about the possibility that solutions to challenging problems could arise from unexpected sources, emphasizing the value of exploring diverse avenues of research.

Source: University of Cincinnati

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