Central retinal thickness is positively correlated with macular
pigment optical density
S.H. Melissa Liewa, Clare E. Gilbertb, Tim D. Spectora, John Mellerioc, Frederik J. Van Kuijkd,
Stephen Beattye, Fred Fitzkef, John Marshallg, Christopher J. Hammonda,h,*
aTwin Research and Genetic Epidemiology Unit, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, UK
bInternational Centre for Eye Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, London, UK
cSchool of Biosciences, University of Westminster, London, UK
dDepartment of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX, USA
eDepartment of Chemical and Life Sciences, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland
fInstitute of Ophthalmology, London, UK
gRayne Institute, St Thomas’ Hospital, London, UK
hWest Kent Eye Center, Princess Royal University Hospital, Orpington, UK
Received 7 August 2005; accepted in revised form 20 October 2005
Available online 27 December 2005
Macular pigment (MP) has been suggested to have a protective role in age-related macular degeneration by reducing the amount of oxidative
stress on the retina. MP levels peak at the foveal center, where it is found predominantly in the receptor axon and inner plexiform layers of the
retina. The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between central retinal thickness and macular pigment optical density in a
group of healthy subjects.
We report that macular pigment optical density (MPOD) has a significant and positive relationship with central retinal thickness as measured by
optical coherence tomography. The strength of the observed relationship (rw0.30) was independent of the technique used to measure MPOD,
whether heterochromatic flicker photometry (HFP) or 2-wavelength autofluorescence (AF). Of note, there was no statistically demonstrable
relationship between MPOD at an eccentricity of 1- or 2-degrees and central retinal thickness. This finding has important implications for future
studies investigating MPOD, and its response to dietary modification/supplementation.
q 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: macular pigment; lutein, carotenoids; retinal thickness; xanthophylls
Macular pigment (MP) is a blue-light absorbing pigment,
which is concentrated in the central macular region. MP is
composed of two dietary hydroxy-carotenoids, lutein (L) and
zeaxanthin (Z), which form the characteristic yellow spot seen
in the central macula region (Bone et al., 1985). L and Z are
thought to have a protective effect in the eye by limiting the
oxidative stress on the retina through their role as blue-light
filters and/or by acting as direct antioxidants (Snodderly et al.,
1984a; Khachik et al., 1997; Boulton et al., 2001). As oxidative
stress is likely to play a role in the pathogenesis of ARMD, it
has been hypothesized that MP may protect against this
condition, which is still the leading cause of blindness in the
Western world (Beatty et al., 2000a; Margrain et al., 2004).
Several studies have published data, which shows that serum
and dietary levels of L and Z are inversely associated with risk
for advanced ARMD (Seddon et al., 1994; Beatty et al., 2001;
Gale et al., 2003) stimulating interest in the potential protective
effect of augmenting MP levels through supplementation or
dietary modification. So far, studies suggest that although
serum levels of lutein generally increase above baseline with
supplementation or dietary modification, the MPOD response
is less predictable, reflected in the considerable variability in
the magnitude of the MPOD increase, with some individuals
failing to demonstrate any rise in MPOD despite high amounts
of supplementation (Hammond et al., 1997a; Landrum et al.,
1997; Johnson et al., 2000). Foveal architecture has been
postulated to contribute to the variation in MP levels in humans
Experimental Eye Research 82 (2006) 915–920
0014-4835/$ - see front matter q 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
*Corresponding author. Address: Christopher J. Hammond, Twin Research
and Genetic Epidemiology Unit, St Thomas’ Hospital, Lambeth palace road,
London SE1 7EH, UK.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (C.J. Hammond).
(Hammond et al., 1997b) and MP has been shown to be
significantly related to central retinal thickness in several types
of retinal degeneration including Usher syndrome, retinitis
pigmentosa and choroideremia (Aleman et al., 2001; Duncan
et al., 2002).
The spatial distribution of MP has previously been
investigated and spectroscopic studies of primate maculae
have found the highest concentrations of MP to be in the
receptor axon and inner plexiform layers of the retina
(Snodderly et al., 1984b). MP concentration peaks at the
foveal center, where the highest density of MP is found in the
receptor axon layer, but MP density declines rapidly with
increasing eccentricity to low, relatively constant levels within
1mm retinal eccentricity (Snodderly et al., 1984a).
Central retinal thickness varies widely among individuals
and is now easily measured in the clinic using optical
coherence tomography (OCT) (Hee et al., 1995). Numerous
studies have shown high reproducibility of retinal thickness
measurements using OCT (Massin et al., 2002; Alamouti and
Funk, 2003). The purpose of this study was to investigate the
relationship between central retinal thickness and MP optical
density in healthy individuals.
2. Materials and methods
We measured the macular pigment optical density (MPOD)
and central retinal thickness of 322 healthy, female subjects,
who were recruited as part of a twin study on MP heritability.
All the subjects have been recruited to the TwinsUK adult
registry held at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, through local
and national media campaigns and were subsequently invited
to participate in an eye study. An upper age limit was set at 50
years to increase the likelihood of recruiting subjects with
healthy retinas. Research procedures followed the tenets of the
Declaration of Helsinki and were approved by the local ethics
An ocular history and examination was performed on all
subjects to exclude subjects with any previous ocular surgery
or retinal pathology (including early age related maculopathy).
Retinal thickness and MPOD were measured in the same
session, by a single investigator. Retinal thickness was
measured using OCT (Stratus model 3000; Carl Zeiss),
following pupil dilation with 1% tropicamide. Six radial
scans (6 mm long), centred on the fixation point, were
performed on each eye. Using OCT, the retinal thickness is
calculated as the distance between the vitreoretinal interface
and the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Retinal thickness
was calculated automatically using the in built topographic
mapping software. For each eye, a single retinal map was
acquired using all six scans, centred on the subject’s fixation
point. In order to investigate the relationship between MP and
retinal thickness, we used the average retinal thickness value in
the central 1000 mm (w3.38) diameter zone (A1), as optically
detectable levels of the pigment are found within this area. We
also recorded the central foveal thickness (average retinal
thickness at point of intersection of the six radial scans),
because MP peaks at this location. OCT measurements were
performed in 308 volunteers, but the results from three subjects
were excluded due to high refractive error compromising
image quality. Retinal thickness was therefore measured in 612
eyes (305 right eyes, 307 left eyes).
MPOD was measured using a psychophysical (heterochro-
matic flicker photometry [HFP]) and by an objective, image-
based technique (2-wavelength, autofluorecence [AF]). As
each of these methods use different underlying assumptions to
estimate MPOD in vivo, we used both techniques to investigate
whether their respective relationships with retinal thickness
would be comparable.
2.1. Psychophysical technique
A portable HFP device (called a Maculometer) was
employed (Mellerio et al., 2002). The Maculometer uses a
1-degree foveal test field and a parafoveal test field consisting
of an annulus of 10-degrees diameter. HFP uses MP’s spectral
and anatomical properties; MP absorbs strongly in the blue
portion of the spectrum, thereby attenuating the spectral
sensitivity of macular photoreceptors to blue light. During
this test, the subject fixes on a central test field which flickers
between blue [lmaxZ468 nm, close to the maximum absorption
wavelength of MP], and green [lmaxZ535 nm, corresponding
to minimum absorption by the MP]. The subject varies the
luminance of the blue light until the perception of flicker is
minimized, and then repeats the task with the test field imaged
in the parafovea, where MP is assumed to be negligible. The
MP density at the test wavelength is therefore given by log
(Ifoveal/Iparafoveal) where Ifovealis the luminance of the blue light
for minimum flicker in the fovea and Iparafovealis the luminance
of the blue light for minimum flicker in the parafovea.
2.2. Image-based technique
AF images were acquired using a modified confocal
scanning laser ophthalmoscope (Heidelberg Engineering,
Heidelberg). Delori et al developed this method of MPOD
measurement, which takes advantage of the AF of retinal
pigment epithelium (RPE) lipofuscin. Lipofuscin is excited
in vivo by wavelengths of light between 400–570 nm (Delori et
al., 1995; Delori, 2004). Two wavelengths of light are used to
stimulate AF, one that is well absorbed by MP (488 nm) and
one that is minimally absorbed by MP (514 nm), to allow
quantification of MP density. It is assumed that MP is the major
component responsible for the attenuation of AF in the central
macula. A common barrier filter (530 nm) was used so that the
intensity of emitted AF was measured near the threshold where
MP has no absorption, enabling a single-pass measurement of
MP density. A software programme has been developed to
quantify MPOD, which generates maps by digital subtraction
of the AF images taken at the two different wavelengths and
uses a gray scale index of intensity (Wustemeyer et al., 2003).
In this study, we evaluated the peak MPOD (foveal centre/0-
degrees eccentricity), the MPOD at half-degree, 1-degree and
2-degrees eccentricity from the foveal center and also the
S.H.M. Liew et al. / Experimental Eye Research 82 (2006) 915–920916
average MPOD in the central 1, 2 and 4-degree diameter area
(centred on the fovea).
The computer statistics package, STATA (Version 8 SE
Stata Corporation), was used for data analysis and statistics.
The mean (C/KSD) logMAR visual acuity of all included
subjects was 0.0C/K0.1. The mean central retinal thickness
(central 1000 mm diameter area) was 212 mm (SD: 19; range:
165–277) and revealed a normal distribution (skew test, pZ
0.22) (Fig. 1). Mean central retinal thickness exhibited a high
degree of inter-ocular symmetry, represented by a correlation
coefficient of 0.91 between subjects’ fellow eyes. The mean
central foveal retinal thickness was 178 mm (SD: 23; range:
127–252), and this also exhibited a high degree of inter-ocular
agreement (rZ0.84), and a normal distribution pattern (skew
Using HFP, the mean MPOD value was 0.44 (range K0.06
to 1.25). When right and left eyes were analyzed separately, the
mean MPOD value was the same for both eyes (right eye: mean
0.44, SD 0.21; range 0.004–1.25; left eye: mean 0.44, SD 0.19;
range K0.06 to 1.09) and the inter-ocular correlation
coefficient between subjects’ fellow eyes was 0.81. MP
readings from 11 subjects were excluded due to poor fixation
or difficulty in performing the test.
Using the AF method, the mean (C/KSD) peak MPOD
was 0.71C/K0.20 (range 0.24–1.21). The mean MPOD
measured at half-degree, 1-degree and 2-degrees eccentricity
was 0.41C/K0.15 (0.03K0.96), 0.28C/K0.11 (0.01K0.73)
and 0.09C/K0.04 (0K0.27), respectively. The mean MPOD
in the central 1-degree, 2-degree and 4-degree diameter zone
was 0.51C/K0.16 (0.1K1.05), 0.38C/K0.13 (0.04K0.86)
and 0.21C/K0.08 (0.04K0.54), respectively. There was a
very high degree of inter-ocular symmetry, with intraclass
correlations of between 0.91 and 0.97, for all the AF
As there was a high inter-ocular correlation in retinal
thickness and MPOD measurements, the mean value for both
eyes, of each individual, was used to investigate the
relationship between these two parameters. Using HFP,
MPOD values were positively and significantly related with
mean central retinal thickness and with central foveal thickness
(no. observationsZ296), represented by comparable corre-
lation coefficients of 0.29 and 0.28, respectively (p!0.0001)
Using AF, MPOD values measured within the central one-
degree diameter also correlated positively and significantly
with mean central retinal and foveal thicknesses (no.
observationsZ306), represented by correlation coefficients of
between 0.26 and 0.40 (p!0.0001). Correlation results are
detailed in Table 1. The highest correlation was found between
the average MPOD in the central 1-degree area and foveal
retinal thickness, with a coefficient (r) of 0.40 (Fig. 2(b)). Fig. 3
shows the retinal thickness and MPOD profiles of 2 subjects,
one with low central retinal thickness and low MPOD and one
with high retinal thickness and high MPOD. There was no
statistically demonstrable relationship between retinal thick-
ness and the AF MPOD measured at 1-degree eccentricity,
2-degree eccentricity or the mean MPOD in the central
To account for any sibling relationship, as our subject
population included twin pairs, the relationship between
MPOD and retinal thickness was re-analyzed using one twin
chosen at random from each pair. We found the same positive
Fig. 1. Frequency distribution of central foveal retinal thickness, measured by
optical coherence tomography.
Fig. 2. Relationship of macular pigment optical density (MPOD) and foveal
retinal thickness (measured by OCT). (a) MPOD measured by heterochromatic
flicker photometry (HFP) (rZ0.28). (b) Peak MPOD measured by autofluor-
escence (AF) (rZ0.33).
S.H.M. Liew et al. / Experimental Eye Research 82 (2006) 915–920917
relationship, of the same magnitude (rw0.30), using AF
MPOD and HFP MPOD readings with respect to measures of
macular and foveal retinal thickness.
In recent years, there has been a growing level of interest in
the effects of dietary modification and supplementation on
MPOD, primarily because of the possible protection that this
pigment may confer against ARMD. However studies have
shown large variations in the response of MPOD to
supplementation or dietary modification (Hammond et al.,
1997(a); Landrum et al., 1997). Therefore it is likely that other
factors, genetic and or environmental, influence an individual’s
response to supplementation. To our knowledge, this is the
largest study examining the relationship of MPOD and retinal
thickness in healthy subjects.
In this study, we have measured MPOD and retinal thickness
in 306 healthy subjects to examine the relationship between
these two parameters. The mean MPOD of this study group,
measured using HFP, was 0.44 and is comparable to other
studies where a similar sized central test field was used,
including Beatty et al.’s study (mean 0.496; t-test, pZ0.32),
Mellerio et al.’s study (mean 0.41; t-test, pZ0.12) and Werner
et al.’s study (mean 0.39) (Werner et al., 1987; Beatty et al.,
2000b; Mellerio et al., 2002). Our AF measurements of the
average MPOD in the central 2-degree diameter area (0.38C/K
0.13) are comparable with Delori et al’s AF results which
reported a mean of 0.37C/K0.12 (Delori et al., 2001) (t-test,
pZ0.41). However a study by Wustermeyer et al, performed
using a similar HRA apparatus, reported a lower mean MPOD
averaged in a central two degree area (0.22C/K0.07)
(Wustemeyer et al., 2003).
The mean foveal retinal thickness in this study (178C/K23)
which reported a mean foveal retinal thickness of 170CK/14.7
(t-test, pZ0.22) (Aleman et al., 2001). The mean central retinal
to a previous study examining healthy eyes using OCT
which reported a mean value of 209C/K20.5 (t-test, pZ0.40)
(Guedes et al., 2003). A study by Lim et al has found the mean
central retinal thickness of healthy subjects to be higher
(231C/K10.5 mm) ina Singapore population(Lim etal.,2005).
Summary of retinal thickness and macular pigment optical density correlations
AF-central 18 area
AF-central 28 area
AF-central 48 area
Abbreviations: MRT, macular retinal thickness (average retinal thickness in
central 1000 mm area); FRT, foveal retinal thickness; HFP, heterochromatic
flicker photometry macular pigment measurements; AF, autofluorescence
macular pigment measurements. (P values are given only if the relationship is
Fig.3.OCTimages(toprow),retinalthickness profilesgeneratedby OCTsoftware(middlerow)and macularpigmentoptical density(MPOD)profiles(bottomrow)
generated by autofluorescence, for 2 subjects. Subject A (left column images) has a thin foveal retinal thickness of 135.0 mm and a low MPOD of 0.03 and 0.17
measured by heterochromatic flicker photometry and autofluorescence (mean MPOD in central 1-degree area), respectively. Subject B has a high foveal retinal
thickness of 222.5 mm and a high MPOD of 0.68 and 0.8 measured by heterochromatic flicker photometry and autofluorescence, respectively.
S.H.M. Liew et al. / Experimental Eye Research 82 (2006) 915–920918
As our MPOD and macular retinal thickness readings are
comparable to other studies and because twins have been
shown to be comparable to singletons in many complex traits
(Andrew et al., 2001), we believe the results of this study are
generalisable to healthy subjects aged 17–50 years of age.
Previous studies have found that MPOD in patients with
retinal degeneration (choroideremia, retinitis pigmentosa,
usher syndrome) is significantly and inversely related to retinal
thickness (rZ0.57/0.66) (Aleman et al., 2001; Duncan et al.,
2002), suggesting that loss of retinal tissue may influence MP
levels. Duncan et al assessed whether foveal thickness
influences response to lutein supplementation in patients with
choroideremia. The results did not show a statistically
significant difference in the mean foveal thickness of
responders compared with non-responders however the size
of this study was very small with only seven subjects receiving
lutein supplementation (Duncan et al., 2002). Interestingly,
Aleman et al. found that retinal non-responders to supplemen-
tation had greater severity of retinitis pigmentosa or
Usher syndrome. We can speculate that genetic background
may influence the retinal response to dietary L and/or Z,
and a poor response may increase the risk or severity of
retinal degeneration. Indeed, a classical twin study
has demonstrated that genetic factors are important determi-
nants of MP levels, with heritability estimates of 0.67–0.85
(Liew et al., 2005).
We have found a significant relationship between central
retinal thickness and MPOD, in healthy subjects, in the central
1-degree diameter retinal area, assessed using two very
different methods, AF and HFP. The magnitude of the
relationship was also very similar (wrZ0.30) using the two
different methods of MP assessment. However, the strength of
the relationship was modest in this group of healthy subjects,
and less than that found in patients with retinal degeneration,
suggesting that there is a more complex relationship in retinal
tissue that is not diseased (Aleman et al., 2001).
Although significant levels of MP are usually found at
1- and 2-degrees retinal eccentricity, surprisingly, we did not
find a significant relationship with retinal thickness at these
locations. MPOD distribution profiles vary considerably
between different individuals. Observing the MPOD profile
from the periphery to the foveal center, some individuals
exhibit a central depression or dip in MPOD before reaching
the peak level, as shown in Fig. 3 (subject A) (Hammond et al.,
1997b; Snodderly et al., 1984a; Aleman et al., 2001; Robson
et al., 2003). It is possible that the central depression in MPOD
may be related to physiological thinning at the fovea.
Therefore, a deeper foveal dip in retinal thickness may be
associated with a more marked reduction in MPOD. Subject A
in Fig. 3 shows a deep foveal pit on OCT and also has a marked
central depression in MPOD, demonstrated by the AF MPOD
profile. In comparison, subject B in Fig. 3 has a shallower
foveal pit and the MPOD profile does not show a central
depression but levels rise steadily to reach a peak. It can be
postulated that the amount of retinal tissue present may
influence the accumulation or storage of MP as our results
suggest a positive linear relationship of MPOD with retinal
As most of the MP is found at the fovea and decreases
approximately exponentially towards the periphery, the foveal
thickness may have a more pronounced influence on central
MPOD and may explain why this relationship was only
detectable in the central region. In this study, the foveal retinal
thickness appeared to have higher correlations with MPOD
compared to the corresponding macular retinal thickness
correlations (Table 1). The peak MPOD and the average
MPOD over the central 1-degree disc area, measured by AF,
exhibiting the strongest correlations with FRT.
We have shown a significant, but modest (r2Z0.09)
relationship between central retinal thickness and macular
pigment optical density. Future developments in OCT
technology will allow further investigation of the relationship
between the spatial profile of MP and the layer structure of the
retina. Further research may shed light on whether retinal
thickness or architecture has important implications regarding
response to lutein/zeaxanthin supplementation. In addition,
future studies investigating the relationship between MP and
ARMD need to consider the relationship between retinal
thickness and MP, and even the possibility that a thin retina
may be an independent risk factor for ARMD, with the
association of ARMD and low MP being secondary to this.
We are grateful to all the volunteers. Financial support was
provided by the Wellcome Trust. The authors also thank Prof.
Miles Stanford for his support of this research and use of the
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