PURPOSE: To determine changes in keratocyte density in the first year after laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK). DESIGN: Prospective interventional cohort study. METHODS: Seventeen eyes of 11 patients received LASIK with a planned 180-μm flap to correct refractive errors between -2.0 diopters and -11.0 diopters. Images of the full-thickness cornea were obtained by using confocal microscopy in vivo before LASIK and at 1 week, 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after LASIK. Bright objects (that resembled keratocytes) in images without motion blur were manually counted by one observer. Cell densities were determined in anterior and posterior halves of the stromal flap, anterior and posterior halves of the layer 100 μm-thick immediately deep to the ablation (retroablation layer), and in the posterior third of the stroma. The region of stroma that was ablated (as measured 1 month after LASIK) was omitted from the preoperative analysis. RESULTS: Keratocyte density in the anterior flap was 28,978 ± 5849 cells/mm3 (mean ± SD) pre-LASIK, and was decreased at all postoperative examinations, but the difference was not significant until 12 months after LASIK (22% decrease). Keratocyte densities in the posterior flap were 20,397 ± 4215 cells/mm3 pre-LASIK and were decreased by 20%-40% at all postoperative examinations 1 week to 1 year after LASIK. Keratocyte densities in the anterior half of the retroablation layer were 16,605 ± 3595 cells/mm3 pre-LASIK and decreased by 16%-30% between 3 and 12 months after LASIK. Keratocyte densities in the posterior half of the retroablation layer and posterior stroma did not change. CONCLUSIONS: Keratocyte densities in the posterior flap and anterior retroablation layer (regions adjacent to the lamellar cut) decrease at 1 week and 3 months, respectively, after LASIK and remain decreased in these regions at 12 months after LASIK. In the anterior flap, keratocyte density decreases 1 year after LASIK. The long-term effects of these cellular deficits, if any, require further study.
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