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The crystallin proteins were initially identified as structural proteins of the ocular lens and have been recently demonstrated to be expressed in normal retina. They are dramatically upregulated by a large range of retinal diseases including diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, uveitis, trauma and ischemia. The crystallin family of proteins is composed of alpha-, beta- and gamma-crystallin. Alpha-crystallins, which are small heat shock proteins, have received substantial attention recently. This review summarizes the current knowledge of alpha-crystallins in retinal diseases, their roles in retinal neuron cell survival and retinal inflammation, and the regulation of their expression and activity. Their potential role in the development of new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases is also discussed.