© 2020 The Author(s). Background: Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of irreversible vision impairment in the United States and globally, is a disease of the photoreceptor support system involving the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), Bruch's membrane, and the choriocapillaris in the setting of characteristic extracellular deposits between outer retinal cells and their blood supply. Research has clearly documented the selective vulnerability of rod photoreceptors and rod-mediated (scotopic) vision in early AMD, including delayed rod-mediated dark adaptation (RMDA) and impaired rod-mediated light and pattern sensitivity. The unifying hypothesis of the Alabama Study on Early Macular Degeneration (ALSTAR2) is that early AMD is a disease of micronutrient deficiency and vascular insufficiency, due to detectable structural changes in the retinoid re-supply route from the choriocapillaris to the photoreceptors. Functionally this is manifest as delayed rod-mediated dark adaptation and eventually as rod-mediated visual dysfunction in general. Methods: A cohort of 480 older adults either in normal macular health or with early AMD will be enrolled and followed for 3 years to examine cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between structural and functional characteristics of AMD. Using spectral domain optical coherence tomography, the association between (1) subretinal drusenoid deposits and drusen, (2) RPE cell bodies, and (3) the choriocapillaris' vascular density and rod-and cone-mediated vision will be examined. An accurate map and timeline of structure-function relationships in aging and early AMD gained from ALSTAR2, especially the critical transition from aging to disease, will identify major characteristics relevant to future treatments and preventative measures. Discussion: A major barrier to developing treatments and prevention strategies for early AMD is a limited understanding of the temporal interrelationships among structural and functional characteristics while transitioning from aging to early AMD. ALSTAR2 will enable the development of functionally valid, structural biomarkers for early AMD, suitable for use in forthcoming clinical trials as endpoint/outcome measures. The comprehensive dataset will also allow hypothesis-testing for mechanisms that underlie the transition from aging to AMD, one of which is a newly developed Center-Surround model of cone resilience and rod vulnerability. Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier NCT04112667, October 7, 2019.