Dietary omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and visual loss in infant rhesus monkeys.


Linolenic acid (18:3 omega 3) is a dietary precursor of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6 omega 3), the major fatty acid in the photoreceptor membranes of the retina. We hypothesized that rhesus monkeys deprived of dietary omega-3 fatty acids during prenatal and postnatal development would show plasma depletion of these fatty acids and visual impairment. Semipurified diets low in omega-3 fatty acids were fed to one group of adult female rhesus monkeys throughout pregnancy and to their infants from birth. A control group of mothers and infants received similar diets but supplying ample linolenic acid. In the plasma phospholipids of deficient infants, linolenic acid was generally undetectable and 22:6 omega 3 levels became progressively depleted, falling from 42% of control values at birth to 21% at 4 wk, 9% at 8 wk, and 6% at 12 wk of age. In the other plasma lipid classes, 22:6 omega 3 was undetectable by 12 wk. The visual acuity of the deprived infants, as measured by the preferential looking method, was reduced by one-fourth at 4 wk (P less than 0.05) and by one-half at 8 and 12 wk (P less than 0.0005) compared with control infants. These results suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be an essential nutrient, and that 22:6 omega 3 may have a specific function in the photoreceptor membranes of the retina.

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