Nathan Efron, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Optometry, made the discovery after using a special microscope, called a corneal confocal microscope, which he thought would help him in his research into how contact lenses affect the eye.
Instead, its extreme magnification allowed Efron to see fine nerves in the cornea that had never been seen before.
Efron, who has Type 2 diabetes, knew that one of the serious consequences of the disease is diabetic neuropathy — a condition that causes nerve damage and can result in ulcers and amputations. It affects about half of diabetics in varying degrees.
Diabetic neuropathy is assessed now by sensory tests or tissue biopsies.
The eye is a transparent structure and there is nowhere else in the body where you can look directly at nerves.
A five-year study is now under way to work out if the technology can be used to monitor nerve degeneration over time.
Efron hopes his discoveries will lead to early testing for diabetic neuropathy that will motivate sufferers to better manage their disease. Testing could be carried out at the same time as diabetes patients are tested for other eye problems caused by the disease.
He suggested it could be in use in three to five years. The test has been used to monitor nerve regeneration in patients who have undergone kidney and pancreas transplants, and it could help track the effects of new treatments.
The findings were presented to the Asia Pacific Academy of Opthamology Congress in Sydney, March 2011.