Aims/hypothesis: Fractal analysis of the retinal vasculature provides a global measure of the complexity and density of retinal vessels summarised as a single variable: the fractal dimension. We investigated fractal dimensions as long-term predictors of microvasculopathy in type 1 diabetes.
Methods: We included 180 patients with type 1 diabetes in a 16 year follow-up study. In baseline retinal photographs (from 1995), all vessels in a zone 0.5-2.0 disc diameters from the disc margin were traced using Singapore Institute Vessel Assessment-Fractal image analysis software. Artefacts were removed by a certified grader, and fractal dimensions were calculated using the box-counting method. At follow-up (in 2011), diabetic neuropathy, nephropathy and proliferative retinopathy were assessed and related to baseline fractal dimensions in multiple regressions adjusted for sex and baseline age, diabetes duration, HbA1c, BP, BMI, vibration perception threshold, albuminuria, retinopathy and vessel diameters.
Results: Mean baseline age and diabetes duration were 21.0 and 13.4 years, respectively, and of patients 50.0% were males. The mean fractal dimension was 1.3817. The 16 year incidences of neuropathy, nephropathy and proliferative retinopathy were 10.8%, 8.0% and 27.9%, respectively. Multiple regression analyses showed a lower fractal dimension to significantly predict incident neuropathy (OR 1.17 per 0.01 fractal dimension decrease [95% CI 1.01, 1.36]), nephropathy (OR 1.40 per 0.01 fractal dimension decrease [95% CI 1.10, 1.79]) and proliferative retinopathy (OR 1.22 per 0.01 fractal dimension decrease [95% CI 1.09, 1.37]).
Conclusions/interpretation: The retinal vascular fractal dimension is a shared biomarker of diabetic microvasculopathy, thus indicating a possible common pathogenic pathway. Retinal fractal analysis therefore is a potential tool for risk stratification in type 1 diabetes.