Age and diabetes related changes of the retinal capillaries: An ultrastructural and immunohistochemical study

Enrica Bianchi, Guido Ripandelli, Samanta Taurone, Janos Feher, Rocco Plateroti, Illes Kovacs, Giuseppe Magliulo, Maria Patrizia Orlando, Alessandra Micera, Ezio Battaglione, Marco Artico

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Normal human aging and diabetes are associated with a gradual decrease of cerebral flow in the brain with changes in vascular architecture. Thickening of the capillary basement membrane and microvascular fibrosis are evident in the central nervous system of elderly and diabetic patients. Current findings assign a primary role to endothelial dysfunction as a cause of basement membrane (BM) thickening, while retinal alterations are considered to be a secondary cause of either ischemia or exudation. The aim of this study was to reveal any initial retinal alterations and variations in the BM of retinal capillaries during diabetes and aging as compared to healthy controls. Moreover, we investigated the potential role of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and pro-inflammatory cytokines in diabetic retina. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) was performed on 46 enucleated human eyes with particular attention to alterations of the retinal capillary wall and Müller glial cells. Inflammatory cytokines expression in the retina was investigated by immunohistochemistry. Our electron microscopy findings demonstrated that thickening of the BM begins primarily at the level of the glial side of the retina during aging and diabetes. The Müller cells showed numerous cytoplasmic endosomes and highly electron-dense lysosomes which surrounded the retinal capillaries. Our study is the first to present morphological evidence that Müller cells start to deposit excessive BM material in retinal capillaries during aging and diabetes. Our results confirm the induction of pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α and IL-1β within the retina as a result of diabetes. These observations strongly suggest that inflammatory cytokines and changes in the metabolism of Müller glial cells rather than changes in of endothelial cells may play a primary role in the alteration of retinal capillaries BM during aging and diabetes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-53
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2016


  • age
  • basement membrane (BM)
  • growth factors
  • inflammatory cytokines
  • Müller cells
  • pericytes
  • retinal capillaries

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Immunology
  • Immunology and Allergy


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