We often think of our medications as treating just one ailment. But wouldn’t it be nice if some of them did double duty?
Citicoline, a drug that is naturally found in the body, is commonly used to treat a number of brain injuries and illnesses. For quite some time, doctors have prescribed it for strokes, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and general aging of the brain. Patients usually see improvement when taking the drug because the body uses it to create and repair cell membranes and lower the presence of free radicals, as noted in the Clinical Interventions in Aging Journal. (Free radicals, which are unstable molecules, can damage cells in the body and are associated with aging and illness.)
Now, researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine have found evidence that citicoline can also be used to treat glaucoma. Normally, glaucoma is treated by removing fluid buildup in the eye, which creates pressure and wears down the cells in the eye and the nerves connecting to the brain. Though monitoring fluid buildup is important, glaucoma can still worsen after the pressure on the eye has been relieved.
That’s where citicoline comes in. Published in the Neurotherapeutics Journal, this study was designed to explore the benefits of citicoline in patients with glaucoma. Researchers hoped to determine whether the drug could protect the visual system regardless of pressure buildup in the eye, and used 82 rats to do so. For those who don’t know, rats are commonly used in scientific studies because they are so genetically similar to humans.
To simulate glaucoma in the rats, researchers administered a clear gel into the eye, which increased eye pressure without blocking vision. As the researchers expected, higher levels and durations of eye pressure were associated with greater physical damage to the eye and weaker connectivity to the brain.
Despite its inability to reduce eye pressure caused by fluid, citicoline was very beneficial. Rats suffering from chronically elevated eye pressure received citicoline orally for three weeks. At the end of that time frame, researchers found that the drug significantly reduced vision loss, boosted vision sharpness, and improved activity in the visual portion of the brain. The breakdown of nerves was also slowed by as much as 74 percent. These benefits stayed true even after treatment was stopped for three weeks. In rats that received no citicoline, even mild eye pressure caused the tissues that connect the eye and the brain — including the optic nerve — to decay for up to five weeks after the injury.
“Our study suggests that citicoline protects against glaucoma through a mechanism different from that of standard treatments that reduce fluid pressure,” senior study author Kevin C. Chan, PhD, explained. “Since glaucoma interrupts the connection between the brain and eye, we hope to strengthen it with new types of therapies.”
This research is also backed by previous studies. In a 2017 paper published in the Romanian Journal of Ophthalmology, citicoline was shown to be a strong protector against eye damage caused by glaucoma. Another study published in the 2020 issue of Nutrients confirmed that citicoline can protect the health of neurons, and is linked to better visual function. According to Dr. Chan, his new study provides strong evidence that choline supplements could be an effective form of therapy for glaucoma patients.
Still, more research is necessary. The study authors acknowledged that commercial citicoline drugs are being tested in clinical trials, but have not yet been proven to be fully effective in humans. Until a new therapy can be approved for glaucoma, everyone can agree that this is a step in the right direction.