Retinal dystrophies, known in man, dog, mouse, and rat, involve progressive loss of photoreceptor cells with onset during or soon after the developmental period. Functional (electroretinogram), chemical (rhodopsin analyses) and morphological (light and electron microscopy) data obtained in the rat indicated two main processes: (a) overproduction of rhodopsin and an associated abnormal lamellar tissue component, (b) progressive loss of photoreceptor cells. The first abnormality recognized was the appearance of swirling sheets or bundles of extracellular lamellae between normally developing retinal rods and pigment epithelium; membrane thickness and spacing resembled that in normal outer segments. Rhodopsin content reached twice normal values, was present in both rods and extracellular lamellae, and was qualitatively normal, judged by absorption maximum and products of bleaching. Photoreceptors attained virtually adult form and ERG function. Then rod inner segments and nuclei began degenerating; the ERG lost sensitivity and showed selective depression of the a-wave at high luminances. Outer segments and lamellae gradually degenerated and rhodopsin content decreased. No phagocytosis was seen, though pigment cells partially dedifferentiated and many migrated through the outer segment-debris zone toward the retina. Eventually photoreceptor cells and the b-wave of the ERG entirely disappeared. Rats kept in darkness retained electrical activity, rhodopsin content, rod structure, and extracellular lamellae longer than litter mates in light.

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