Purpose: To summarize and contextualize recent histology and clinical imaging publications on retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) fate in advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD); to support RPE activation and migration as important precursors to atrophy, manifest as intraretinal hyperreflective foci in spectral-domain optical coherence tomography (SDOCT).
Methods: The Project MACULA online resource for AMD histopathology was surveyed systematically to form a catalog of 15 phenotypes of RPE and RPE-derived cells and layer thicknesses in advanced disease. Phenotypes were also sought in correlations with clinical longitudinal eye-tracked SDOCT and with ex vivo imaging-histopathology correlations in geographic atrophy (GA) and pigment epithelium detachments (PED).
Results: The morphology catalog suggested two main pathways of RPE fate: basolateral shedding of intracellular organelles (apparent apoptosis in situ) and activation with anterior migration. Acquired vitelliform lesions may represent a third pathway. Migrated cells are packed with RPE organelles and confirmed as hyperreflective on SDOCT. RPE layer thickening due to cellular dysmorphia and thick basal laminar deposit is observed near the border of GA. Drusenoid PED show a life cycle of slow growth and rapid collapse preceded by RPE layer disruption and anterior migration.
Conclusions: RPE activation and migration comprise an important precursor to atrophy that can be observed at the cellular level in vivo via validated SDOCT. Collapse of large drusen and drusenoid PED appears to occur when RPE death and migration prevent continued production of druse components. Data implicate excessive diffusion distance from choriocapillaris in RPE death as well as support a potential benefit in targeting drusen in GA.