Diabetes and Corneal Cell Densities in Humans by In Vivo Confocal Microscopy

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Diabetes is accompanied by an increased autofluorescence of the cornea, probably because of accumulation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The pathogenic mechanism is still unknown. This study aimed to quantify differences in corneal cell densities between diabetic patients and healthy controls.


The left cornea of 15 patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) with level of retinopathy 20 according to the Early Treatment of Diabetic Retinopathy Study (ETDRS) and of 15 healthy controls were examined by noninvasive in vivo confocal microscopy in an observational prospective study. The cell densities in 6 corneal layers were determined along the optical axis of the cornea by using stereologic methods.


The average cell density per unit area in the superficial and basal epithelium and the endothelial layer was 725 ± 171, 5950 ± 653, and 2690 ± 302 cells/mm2 in controls and 815 ± 260, 5060 ± 301, and 2660 ± 364 cells/mm2 in diabetic patients. The cell density per unit volume in the anterior, mid-, and posterior stroma was 26,300 ± 4090, 19,390 ± 3120, and 25,700 ± 3260 cells/mm3 in controls and 27,560 ± 3880, 21,930 ± 2110, and 25,790 ± 3090 cells/mm3 in patients with diabetes. In both groups, the density in the midstroma was significantly lower than in both the anterior stroma and the posterior stroma (P < 0.02). The cell density in the basal layer of diabetic patients was significantly lower than in healthy controls (−15.0%, P < 0.0004). In the other layers, no significant differences between both groups (P > 0.07) were observed.


The lower basal cell density found in patients with diabetes may result from a combination of different mechanisms including decreased innervation at the subbasal nerve plexus, basement membrane alterations, and higher turnover rate in basal epithelial cells. The lower cell density in the midstroma of diabetic patients and healthy controls may be attributed in part to differences in oxygen concentration in the stromal layers (depths). Changes in cellular density did not seem to be responsible for the increased autofluorescence in diabetes.

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