Corneal collagen crosslinking (CXL) is designed to halt the progression of keratoconus and corneal ectasia by inducing corneal stiffening. However, it currently is difficult to monitor and evaluate CXL outcome objectively due to the lack of suitable methods to characterize corneal mechanical properties. We validated noncontact Brillouin microscopy to quantify corneal mechanical properties before and after CXL.
CXL was performed on fresh porcine eyes using various presoaking times and light doses, with or without epithelial debridement. From Brillouin maps of corneal elastic modulus, stiffness and average modulus of anterior, middle, and posterior stroma were analyzed. Corneal stiffening index (CSI) was introduced as a metric to compare the mechanical efficacy of a given CXL protocol with respect to the standard protocol (30-minute riboflavin presoak, 3 mW/cm² ultraviolet illumination for 30 minutes).
Brillouin corneal stiffness increased significantly (P < 0.001) by epi-off and epi-on CXL. The increase of Brillouin modulus was depth-dependent, indicating that anterior stromal stiffening contributes the most to mechanical outcome. The increase of anterior Brillouin modulus was linearly proportional to the light dose (R² > 0.98). Compared to the standard epi-off procedure, a typical epi-on procedure resulted in a third of stiffness increase in porcine corneas (CSI = 33).
Brillouin microscopy allowed imaging and quantifying CXL-induced mechanical changes without contact in a depth-dependent manner at high spatial resolution. This technique may be useful to evaluate the mechanical outcomes of CXL procedures, to compare different crosslinking agents, and for real-time monitoring of CXL in clinical and experimental settings.