Diabetic retinopathy (DR) remains the leading cause of blindness among working-age individuals in developed countries. Current treatments for DR are indicated in advanced stages of the disease and are associated with significant adverse effects. Therefore, new pharmacological treatments for the early stages of DR are needed. DR has been classically considered to be a microcirculatory disease of the retina. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that retinal neurodegeneration is an early event in the pathogenesis of DR, which participates in the microcirculatory abnormalities that occur in DR. Therefore, the study of the underlying mechanisms that lead to neurodegeneration will be essential for identifying new therapeutic targets. From the clinical point of view, the identification of those patients in whom retinal neurodegeneration appears will be crucial for implementing early treatment based on neuroprotective drugs. When the early stages of DR are the therapeutic target, it would be inconceivable to recommend an aggressive treatment such as intravitreous injections. By contrast, topical administration of neuroprotective drugs by using eye drops is a possible option. However, clinical trials to determine the safety and effectiveness of this non-invasive route, as well as a standardisation of the methods for monitoring neurodegeneration, are needed.