In the present study mechanical damage to the corneal endothelium was induced by elevation of intraocular pressure (IOP, 140 mmHg, 60 min) to one eye of rats, delivered either in complete darkness or in the presence of red light (16.5 W/m2, 3000 lx, 625–635 nm). IOP raised in the dark revealed the endothelium to be damaged as staining for the gap junction protein ZO-1 was irregular in appearance with some cells displaced in position or lost to leave gaps or holes. This damage was clearly attenuated when red light was focused through the pupil during the insult of raised IOP. Moreover, staining of endothelium with JC-1 dye showed mitochondria to be activated by both elevated IOP and red light but the activation of mitochondria persisted longer for red light. We interpret this finding to suggest that raised IOP causes apoptosis of endothelial cells and that their mitochondria are activated in the initial stages of the process. In contrast, red light activates mitochondria to induce a protective mechanism to counteract the negative influence of raised IOP on endothelial cells. Evidence is provided to support this notion by the finding that red light stimulates mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase IV (COX IV). Moreover, mitochondria in corneal endothelial cell cultures are activated by red light, revealed by staining with JC-1, that results in an increased rate of proliferation and are also able to counteract toxic insults (sodium azide or cobalt chloride) to the cultures.
The present studies therefore show that a non-toxic level of red light attenuates damage to the corneal endothelium both in situ and in vitro through action on COX IV located in mitochondria that results in an enhancement of a cell's survival mechanisms. The study provides proof of principle for the non-invasive use of red-light therapy to attenuate any dysfunctions associated with the corneal endothelium and so preserve maximum visual acuity.