Age-related macular degeneration, a disease that affects nearly 2 million individuals in the United States, is characterized by the death of retinal tissue in the macula, the area of the retina that mediates central vision. The resulting loss of cells often leads to profound deficits in visual function. However, many individuals with macular degeneration learn to use their spared peripheral vision for visual tasks such as reading, for which healthy vision participants would use the macula. It is unclear how the anatomy and function of structures beyond the retina contribute to this compensatory improvement in peripheral vision. This project's overall goal is to understand how primary visual cortex changes following this compensatory improvement in peripheral vision. Specifically, this study will investigate the structure and functional connections of primary visual cortex following central vision loss. To do this, we will use structural and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to investigate the cortex in participants with macular degeneration. These data will then be compared to age, gender, and education matched normally sighted controls. Our central hypothesis is that the structure (Aim 1) and functional connections (Aim 2) of primary visual cortex are modified after vision loss, in a way that is consistent with compensatory improvement in peripheral vision.
These aims will be accomplished in the context of a formal training plan, sponsored by Drs. Kristina Visscher and Cynthia Owsley. This training plan includes research, coursework, and career development activities that will ultimately train me to be an independent cognitive neuroscientist. The research-training plan will focus on investigating the structural and functional connections of primary visual cortex following central vision loss. The training plan wil also include coursework on visual neuroscience from the department of Vision Science as well as classes offered by the Graduate School on research ethics and writing scientific papers. Additionally, the training plan will have a focus on career development including: conference presentations, scientific writing in peer reviewed publications, and monthly discussions on how to prepare for the next state of my journey to becoming an independent cognitive neuroscientist.

Public Health Relevance

Age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of blindness in the industrialized world, but its effect on cortex is still not fully understood. Here, we investigate the structural and functional connections of primary visual cortex following central vision loss. This knowledge will help in evaluating treatments aimed at restoring visual function following central vision loss. Understanding how visual cortex can reorganize will ultimately aid research in a multitude of retinal disorders that result in the lossof an area of vision.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Eye Institute (NEI)
Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Agarwal, Neeraj
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University of Alabama Birmingham
Schools of Medicine
United States
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Burge, Wesley K; Griffis, Joseph C; Nenert, Rodolphe et al. (2016) Cortical thickness in human V1 associated with central vision loss. Sci Rep 6:23268
Griffis, Joseph C; Burge, Wesley K; Visscher, Kristina M (2016) Age-Dependent Cortical Thinning of Peripheral Visual Field Representations in Primary Visual Cortex. Front Aging Neurosci 8:248