Linolenic acid (18:3ω3) is a dietary precursor of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6ω3), the major fatty acid in the photoreceptor membranes of the retina. We hypothesized that rhesus monkeys deprived of dietary ω-3 fatty acids during prenatal and postnatal development would show plasma depletion of these fatty acids and visual impairment. Semipurified diets low in ω-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 22:6ω3 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, 22:6ω3 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 < 0.05) and by one-half at 8 and 12 wk (P < 0.0005) compared with control infants. These results suggest that ω-3 fatty acids may be an essential nutrient, and that 22:6ω3 may have a specific function in the photoreceptor membranes of the retina.
ASJC Scopus subject areas