Aims/hypothesis Microvascular dysfunction is associated with end-organ damage. Macular oedema is an important component of diabetic retinopathy. Macular thickness can be accurately quantified by optical coherence tomography (OCT), enabling accurate assessment of the macular prior to clinically apparent abnormalities. We investigated whether macular (fovea) thickness in non-diabetic individuals is related to the microvascular variables controlling fluid filtration across a blood vessel wall, in particular capillary pressure and the microvascular filtration capacity (Kf). Methods We recruited 50 non-diabetic individuals (25 men, 25 women; age range: 26–78 years; BMI range: 20–46 kg/m2). Fovea thickness was assessed by OCT. Microvascular assessments included: finger nailfold capillary pressure; Kf; microvascular structural assessments, i.e. skin vasodilatory capacity, minimum vascular resistance (MVR) and microvascular distensibility; and endothelial function. Results At 214.6 (19.9) µm (mean [SD]), fovea thickness was within normal range. Capillary pressure, adjusted for BMI, was associated with fovea thickness (standardised beta 0.573, p = 0.006, linear regression). Fovea thickness was not associated with Kf, microvascular structural assessments or endothelial function. Capillary pressure was still associated with fovea thickness when adjusted for microvascular variables (Kf, vasodilatory capacity, MVR, microvascular distensibility or endothelial function), or for risk factors for diabetes (systemic blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, inflammation, glycaemic status and lipids) and age. Conclusions/interpretation Capillary pressure, a key determinant of movement of fluid across a blood vessel wall, is associated with fovea thickness in non-diabetic individuals. This suggests that with regard to potential preventative or therapeutic targets, attention should be directed at the mechanisms determining retinal microvascular pressure. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00125-010-1805-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorised users.