Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is a mitochondrial disorder leading to severe visual impairment or even blindness by death of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). The primary cause of the disease is usually a mutation of the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) causing a single amino acid exchange in one of the mtDNA-encoded subunits of NADH:ubiquinone oxidoreductase, the first complex of the electron transport chain. It was thus obvious to accuse neuronal energy depletion as the most probable mediator of neuronal death. The group of Valerio Carelli and other authors have nicely shown that energy depletion shapes the cell fate in a LHON cybrid cell model. However, the cybrids used were osteosarcoma cells, which do not fully model neuronal energy metabolism. Although complex I mutations may cause oxidative stress, a potential pathogenetic role of the latter was less taken into focus. The hypothesis of bioenergetic failure does not provide a simple explanation for the relatively late disease onset and for the incomplete penetrance, which differs remarkably between genders. It is assumed that other genetic and environmental factors are needed in addition to the ‘primary LHON mutations’ to elicit RGC death. Relevant nuclear modifier genes have not been identified so far. The review discusses the unresolved problems of a pathogenetic hypothesis based on ATP decline and/or ROS-induced apoptosis in RGCs.