Intraocular pressure and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure are important determinants of the trans-laminar pressure gradient which is believed to be important in the pathogenesis of glaucomatous optic nerve degeneration. Computational models and finite element calculations of optic nerve head biomechanics have been previously used to predict pressures and stresses in the human optic nerve. The purpose of this report is to morphometrically compare the optic nerve laminar and pia mater structure between humans and dogs, and to use previously reported tissue pressure measurements in the dog optic nerve to estimate individual-specific human optic nerve pressures and pressure gradients. High resolution light microscopy was used to acquire quantitative histological measurements from sagittal sections taken from the middle of the optic nerve in 34 human cadaveric eyes and 10 dog eyes. Parameters measured included the pre-laminar and lamina cribrosa thickness, distance from posterior boundary of lamina cribrosa to inner limiting membrane (ILM), shortest distance between anterior lamina cribrosa surface and subarachnoid space, shortest distance between ILM and inner surface of pia mater in contact with the subarachnoid space and optic nerve diameter. Pia mater thickness in the proximal 4 mm of post-laminar nerve was also determined. There was no significant difference in lamina cribrosa thickness between dog and human eyes (P = 0.356). The distance between the intraocular and subarachnoid space was greater in dogs (P < 0.001). Pia mater thickness was greatest at the termination of subarachnoid space in both species. In humans, pia mater thickness decreased over the proximal 500 mum to reach a constant value of approximately 60 mum. In dogs this decrease occurred over 1000 mum to reach a constant diameter of approximately 30 mum. Using previous measurements of optic nerve pressures and pressure gradients in dogs we estimate that at an IOP of 15 mmHg and a CSF pressure of 0 mmHg the mean pressure difference across the human pia mater will be 4.8 +/- 2.2 mmHg. If we assume that the pressure difference between the intraocular space and post-laminar tissue falls across the entire thickness of the human lamina cribrosa then an estimate of the trans-laminar pressure gradient is 2.0 +/- 0.8 mmHg/100 mum. If we assume that this pressure difference only occurs across the dense collagenous plates of the posterior lamina cribrosa then a trans-laminar pressure gradient high estimate of 3.3 +/- 1.4 mmHg/100 mum is calculated. Changes in tissue pressure gradients in the optic nerve may be an important factor in the pathogenesis of glaucomatous optic neuropathy.