Optic Nerve Atrophy

Treatment   Symptoms   Causes   About the nervous system   News

Optic nerve atrophy refers to a group of conditions: some are genetically-based while others are due to trauma, toxins, deficiencies, inflammation, and a host of other causes. Optic nerve atrophy means that the optic nerve is limited in its capacity to transmit accurate information about what the eye sees. The optic nerve carries images of what we see coded as electrical impulses, from the retina to our brain.

When the ophthamologist looks in your eye she can see that the pale optic nerve is visibly atrophied and looks pale. It has partially or seriously wasted away resulting in partial or serious loss or change in vision.

Next: Nutritional support, diet, & lifestyle tips for the optic nerve.


The symptoms described here may not necessarily mean that you have optic nerve atrophy. However, if you experience one or more of these symptoms, contact your eye doctor for a complete exam.

  • Blurred vision
  • Decrease in visual function such as a decrease in sharpness and clarity of vision (visual acuity) or decreases in side (peripheral) vision. Color vision and contrast sensitivity can also be affected.
  • Poor constriction of the pupil in light
  • Decreased brightness in one eye relative to the other
  • Change in the optic disc


Most commonly, optic nerve atrophy occurs without a known or proven cause.

Causes leading to optic atrophy range from eye injury or trauma to systemic eye conditions and diseases. These include:

  • Optic neuritis occurs when the optic nerve is inflammed due to autoimmune conditions, viral, fungal and bacterial infections, parasitic diseases, toxins, allergies, digestive problems, diabetes, and/or simply poor circulation. The person might notice eye pain which is more severe when they move their eye. It mostly found in young to middle-aged women. Such inflammation attacks the myelin covering and the optic nerve becomes swollen and, over time, damaged. Some people with this condition may develop multiple sclerosis later on in life.
  • Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy is a hereditary eye disease mostly occurring in late teens to early 20s young men. It is characterized by development over a few weeks of painless, serious, central visual loss in one eye, followed months or weeks later by the same process in the other eye. In the beginning there might be slight swelling, but eventually the optic nerve atrophied resulting in, usually, permanent vision loss.
  • Toxic optic neuropathy. Optic atrophy can result from nutritional deficiencies, some medications, and toxins which damage the optic nerve causing gradual or sudden vision loss. The most common optic neuropathy from poisons and toxins is called as tobacco-alcohol amblyopia, thought to be caused by exposure to cyanide from tobacco smoking, and by low vitamin B12. Other toxins include methyl alcohol (moonshine), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), cyanide, lead, and carbon monoxide.
  • Nutritional optic neuropathy may be caused by protein, B vitamins, vitamin B12, in particular, and folic acid deficiencies which result from poor nutrition, starvation, poor absorption or alcoholism. Vitamin B12 deficiency damages the nerves, and drinking alcohol contributes to poor absorption of vitamin B12. Treatment with intramuscular B12 as well as oral B12 supplementation has been found to result in dramatic improvement in vision.1
  • Glaucoma Untreated, the increased pressure characteristic of glaucoma may eventually affect the optic nerve.
  • Compressive optic neuropathy results from a tumor or other lesion pressing on the optic nerve or from eye movement muscle enlargement which is seen in hyperthyroidism (Graves' disease) patients.
  • Syphilis, untreated, can also result in damage to the optic nerve.
  • Tumors or other growths as well as elevated intraocular pressure can mechanically compress the optic nerve resulting in compressive optic neuropathy.

Central and peripheral nervous system

Each and every functioning of our body; everything we do consciously or unconsciously is intimately connected to the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is the central organizing power of the body. It is comprised of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is the receiver, analyzer, and organizer of all the information coming from the five senses in every part of the body. It is also the integrating force of all of the behind-the-scenes information communicated from organs of the body, glands, and every other entity that acts or reacts to physical, chemical, mental, and electrical stimuli.

The peripheral nervous system is comprised of the nerve cells that are not part of the brain or spinal cord and connects the CNS to the organs, glands, and extremities of the body.

The optic nerve is not part of the brain but it and the retina are considered to be part of the central nervous system. Like brain cells, the optic nerve begins to develop during the earliest embryonic stages. The cells of the optic nerve are covered in covered with myelin, like brain and spinal cord cells.


Though there are no specific studies on nutrients and this particular condition, there is extensive research on nutrients such as lutein, zeaxanthin and bilberry among others that have been shown to be essential for the health of the optic nerve. Based on these studies, Dr. Grossman has selected specific nutrients and products to help support the optic nerve and overall eye health. Some of the research on glaucoma may be applicable.


1. Nutrition & Optic Disease, Woon,C., et al, Neuro-Ophthalmology Department, University of Texas, Seminars in Ophthalmology 1995 Sep;10(3):195-202

Related Conditions

Treatment   Symptoms   Causes   About the nervous system   News