Background: The refractive index of the cornea must be determined to optically perfect keratorefractive procedures. There are very few empirical measurements of the human corneal refractive index described in the literature. Throughout its depth, the cornea demonstrates regional variations in physiological properties such as swelling/de-swelling characteristics. These properties suggest there may be a difference in the refractive index between the anterior and posterior corneal surfaces.
Methods: The refractive index of the human corneal epithelium of 10 eyes was measured, in vivo, using a modified hand-held refractometer. The refractive indices of the anterior and posterior surfaces of the bare stroma of fresh human corneas were measured using a bench model Abbe refractometer.
Results: The mean refractive index of the epithelium, stromal anterior and posterior surfaces were 1.401 (SD +/- 0.005), 1.380 (SD +/- 0.005), and 1.373 (SD +/- 0.001) respectively.
Conclusions: The refractive index of the cornea is not uniform. The calculated dioptric power of the corneal epithelium is approximately -1.40 diopters (D). The varying refractive index does not significantly affect the total dioptric power of the cornea. The varying refractive index of the cornea has the potential to significantly contribute to the overall optical performance of the eye in relation to refractive surgery. The results should be incorporated into mathematical models, comparing and contrasting the optical performance of the eye before and after surgery.