Photoreceptor degeneration is the most critical cause of visual impairment in age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In neovascular form of AMD, severe photoreceptor loss develops with subretinal hemorrhage due to choroidal neovascularization (CNV), growth of abnormal blood vessels from choroidal circulation. However, the detailed mechanisms of this process remain elusive. Here we demonstrate that neovascular AMD with subretinal hemorrhage accompanies a significant increase in extracellular ATP, and that extracellular ATP initiates neurodegenerative processes through specific ligation of Purinergic receptor P2X, ligand-gated ion channel, 7 (P2RX7; P2X7 receptor). Increased extracellular ATP levels were found in the vitreous samples of AMD patients with subretinal hemorrhage compared to control vitreous samples. Extravascular blood induced a massive release of ATP and photoreceptor cell apoptosis in co-culture with primary retinal cells. Photoreceptor cell apoptosis accompanied mitochondrial apoptotic pathways, namely activation of caspase-9 and translocation of apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) from mitochondria to nuclei, as well as TUNEL-detectable DNA fragmentation. These hallmarks of photoreceptor cell apoptosis were prevented by brilliant blue G (BBG), a selective P2RX7 antagonist, which is an approved adjuvant in ocular surgery. Finally, in a mouse model of subretinal hemorrhage, photoreceptor cells degenerated through BBG-inhibitable apoptosis, suggesting that ligation of P2RX7 by extracellular ATP may accelerate photoreceptor cell apoptosis in AMD with subretinal hemorrhage. Our results indicate a novel mechanism that could involve neuronal cell death not only in AMD but also in hemorrhagic disorders in the CNS and encourage the potential application of BBG as a neuroprotective therapy.
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