Imaging the Retinal Vascular Mural Cells in Vivo: Elucidating the Timeline of Their Loss in Diabetic Retinopathy

Bonnie B. Huang, Hisashi Fukuyama, Stephen A. Burns, Amani A. Fawzi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Vascular mural cells (VMCs) are integral components of the retinal vasculature with critical homeostatic functions such as maintaining the inner blood-retinal barrier and vascular tone, as well as supporting the endothelial cells. Histopathologic donor eye studies have shown widespread loss of pericytes and smooth muscle cells, the 2 main VMC types, suggesting these cells are critical to the pathogenesis of diabetic retinopathy (DR). There remain, however, critical gaps in our knowledge regarding the timeline of VMC demise in human DR. METHODS: In this study, we address this gap using adaptive optics scanning laser ophthalmoscopy to quantify retinal VMC density in eyes with no retinal disease (healthy), subjects with diabetes without diabetic retinopathy, and those with clinical DR and diabetic macular edema. We also used optical coherence tomography angiography to quantify capillary density of the superficial and deep capillary plexuses in these eyes. RESULTS: Our results indicate significant VMC loss in retinal arterioles before the appearance of classic clinical signs of DR (diabetes without diabetic retinopathy versus healthy, 5.0±2.0 versus 6.5±2.0 smooth muscle cells per 100 µm; P<0.05), while a significant reduction in capillary VMC density (5.1±2.3 in diabetic macular edema versus 14.9±6.0 pericytes per 100 µm in diabetes without diabetic retinopathy; P=0.01) and capillary density (superficial capillary plexus vessel density, 37.6±3.8 in diabetic macular edema versus 45.5±2.4 in diabetes without diabetic retinopathy; P<0.0001) is associated with more advanced stages of clinical DR, particularly diabetic macular edema. CONCLUSIONS: Our results offer a new framework for understanding the pathophysiologic course of VMC compromise in DR, which may facilitate the development and monitoring of therapeutic strategies aimed at VMC preservation and potentially the prevention of clinical DR and its associated morbidity. Imaging retinal VMCs provides an unparalleled opportunity to visualize these cells in vivo and may have wider implications in a range of diseases where these cells are disrupted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)465-476
Number of pages12
JournalArteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2024


  • blood-retinal barrier
  • diabetic retinopathy
  • healthy volunteers
  • macular edema
  • optical imaging
  • pericytes
  • retinal vessels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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