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International Foundation for Optic Nerve Disease

P. O. Box 777, Cornwall NY 12518, USA
Phone/Fax: (845) 5348606

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Toxic Nerve Disease

Toxic optic nerve damage and blindness can be caused by a large number of poisionous substances, drugs, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic disorders and radiation.

Smoking, alcohol, barbiturates, DDT, lead, and aniline dyes; prescribed drugs such as digitalis, ergotamine, inderal, ethambutol and suramin sodium used to treat heart disease, migraine, hypertension, tuberculosis and HIV respectively are just a few examples known or suspected to cause optic nerve damage in some situations. Many of these agents lead to permanent blindness but visual loss can be stopped in some if diagnosed early.

Benzalkonium chloride, a surfactant preservative very commonly used in eye drops for glaucoma, has been found to potently induce mitochondrial dysfunction and preferentially affect LHON mutant cells in pharmaceutical concentrations.

Visual loss from nutritional deficiency occurs less frequently in developed countries and occasionally in strict vegan vegetarians with vitamin B12 and B1 deficiencies.

Metabolic problems such as sugar diabetes, kidney failure and thyroid disease can cause optic neuropathy likely through build up of toxic substances within the body.

Ultra violet radiation in sunlight can cause a chain reaction of damaging free radical release in the eye which is thought to contribute to premature aging processes in the eye and vision loss.

Toxic optic nerve disease requires much more study but it is known to be similar to LHON, which suggests common pathophysiological mechanisms. It is also known that people can inherit tendencies to be susceptible to toxic substances. Such is the case with LHON and smoking and interestingly, in a parallel mitochondrial disease, aminoglycoside (antibiotic)-induced nerve deafness.

It is highly recommended that those with a family history of optic nerve or retinal disease enquire themselves and with their health professional about possible eye toxicity before being exposed to any drug or substance.


Kailenn Tsao, Phil A Aitken, Donald R Johns. Smoking as an aetiological factor in a pedigree with Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy [full text] Br J Ophthalmol 1999;83:577-581 ( May )

The Eye Drop Preservative Benzalkonium Chloride Potently Induces Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Preferentially Affects LHON Mutant Cells. Sandipan Datta; Christophe Baudouin; Francoise Brignole-Baudouin; Alexandre Denoyer; Gino A. Cortopassi. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science April 2017, Vol.58, 2406-2412. doi:10.1167/iovs.16-20903

Listing for Benzalkonium Chloride in Household Products Database from US Department of Health and Human Services.

toxic+optic+neuropathy PubMed search


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The International Foundation for Optic Nerve Disease
P. O. Box 777, Cornwall NY 12518, USA.
Phone/Fax: (845)5348606
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