Purpose: Corneal wound healing is impaired in diabetic cornea. The purpose of this study was to examine patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus for changes in corneal morphology and to correlate corneal sensitivity, subbasal nerve morphology, and degree of polyneuropathy with each other.
Methods: Forty-four eyes of 23 patients with diabetes and nine control eyes were included. Corneal sensitivity was tested with a Cochet-Bonnet esthesiometer (Luneau, Paris, France), and corneal morphology and epithelial and corneal thickness were determined by in vivo confocal microscopy. The density of subbasal nerves was evaluated by calculating the number of long subbasal nerve fiber bundles per confocal microscopic field. The degree of polyneuropathy was evaluated using the clinical part of the Michigan Neuropathy Screening Instrument (MNSI) classification, and retinopathy was evaluated using fundus photographs.
Results: A reduction of long nerve fiber bundles per image was noted to have occurred already in patients with mild to moderate neuropathy, but corneal mechanical sensitivity was reduced only in patients with severe neuropathy. Compared with control subjects the corneal thickness was increased in patients with diabetes without neuropathy. The epithelium of patients with diabetes with severe neuropathy was significantly thinner than that of patients with diabetes without neuropathy.
Conclusions: Confocal microscopy appears to allow early detection of beginning neuropathy, because decreases in nerve fiber bundle counts precede impairment of corneal sensitivity. Apparently, the cornea becomes thicker in a relatively early stage of diabetes but does not further change with the degree of neuropathy. A reduction in neurotrophic stimuli in severe neuropathy may induce a thin epithelium that may lead to recurrent erosions.