Purpose: To characterize and quantify the collagen fiber (lamellar) organization of human corneas in three dimensions by using nonlinear optical high-resolution macroscopy (NLO-HRMac) and to correlate these findings with mechanical data obtained by indentation testing of corneal flaps.
Methods: Twelve corneas from 10 donors were studied. Vibratome sections, 200 μm thick, from five donor eyes were cut along the vertical meridian from limbus to limbus (arc length, 12 mm). Backscattered second harmonic-generated (SHG) NLO signals from these sections were collected as a series of overlapping 3-D images, which were concatenated to form a single 3-D mosaic (pixel resolution: 0.44 μm lateral, 2 μm axial). Collagen fiber intertwining was quantified by determining branching point density as a function of stromal depth. Mechanical testing was performed on corneal flaps from seven additional eyes. Corneas were cut into three layers (anterior, middle, and posterior) using a femtosecond surgical laser system and underwent indentation testing to determine the elastic modulus for each layer.
Results: The 3-D reconstructions revealed complex collagen fiber branching patterns in the anterior cornea, with fibers extending from the anterior limiting lamina (ALL, Bowman's layer), intertwining with deeper fibers and reinserting back to the ALL, forming bow spring-like structures. Measured branching-point density was four times higher in the anterior third of the cornea than in the posterior third and decreased logarithmically with increasing distance from the ALL. Indentation testing showed an eightfold increase in elastic modulus in the anterior stroma.
Conclusions: The axial gradient in lamellar intertwining appears to be associated with an axial gradient in the effective elastic modulus of the cornea, suggesting that collagen fiber intertwining and formation of bow spring-like structures provide structural support similar to cross-beams in bridges and large-scale structures. Future studies are necessary to determine the role of radial and axial structural-mechanical heterogeneity in controlling corneal shape and in the development of keratoconus, astigmatism, and other refractive errors.