Neurosensory abnormalities have been implicated in the first stages of diabetic retinopathy. The activity of retinal ganglion cells in 24 Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetic patients with short disease duration without retinopathy on fluorescein angiography was investigated by using a pattern electroretinogram in response to sinusoidal gratings of different spatial frequencies (0.6, 1.0, 1.4, 2.2 4.8 cycles/deg), counterphase modulated at 8 Hz. The pattern electroretinogram reflects, at least in part, the activity of subsets of generators (i.e. ganglion cells) which show spatial selectivity. Mean pattern electroretinogram amplitude was significantly reduced in patients at lower and intermediate, but not at higher spatial frequencies compared with 40 age-matched control subjects. At 1.4 cycles/deg the pattern electroretinogram amplitude was significantly correlated (r = 0.59) with age at onset (p = 0.002) and duration of disease (p = 0.002). Our results suggest that in Type 1 diabetic patients without retinopathy, there is an early sensory deficit of specific inner retina neurons which respond preferentially to gratings of medium and large size.