Purpose: Arbitrary numbers of corneal confocal microscopy images have been used for analysis of corneal subbasal nerve parameters under the implicit assumption that these are a representative sample of the central corneal nerve plexus. The purpose of this study is to present a technique for quantifying the number of random central corneal images required to achieve an acceptable level of accuracy in the measurement of corneal nerve fiber length and branch density.
Methods: Every possible combination of 2 to 16 images (where 16 was deemed the true mean) of the central corneal subbasal nerve plexus, not overlapping by more than 20%, were assessed for nerve fiber length and branch density in 20 subjects with type 2 diabetes and varying degrees of functional nerve deficit. Mean ratios were calculated to allow comparisons between and within subjects.
Results: In assessing nerve branch density, eight randomly chosen images not overlapping by more than 20% produced an average that was within 30% of the true mean 95% of the time. A similar sampling strategy of five images was 13% within the true mean 80% of the time for corneal nerve fiber length.
Conclusions: The "sample combination analysis" presented here can be used to determine the sample size required for a desired level of accuracy of quantification of corneal subbasal nerve parameters. This technique may have applications in other biological sampling studies.