It has been proposed that oxidative tissue damage is involved in the development of diabetic angiopathies. To evaluate this hypothesis, experiments were conducted to identify the retinal vessel changes induced by the oxidative stress related to alpha-tocopherol deficiency and examine possible similarities with the lesions characteristic of diabetic retinopathy. Twenty-one-day-old male Fisher 344 albino rats were divided randomly to receive a basal, chemically defined diet either with (adequate group) or without (deficient group) alpha-tocopherol. After 6 and 8 months, some rats (n = 3 per group) were killed and the eyes removed. In order to evaluate cell integrity and localization of lipofuscin-specific autofluorescence by light and fluorescence microscopy, some of the retinas were prepared for cryostat-sections while others were digested by elastase to isolate intact retinal vasculatures. After 8 and 14 months, the central retina of one eye per rat (n = 6 to 8 per group) was examined by electron microscopy for retinal capillary basement membrane (RCBM) thickening and other ultrastructural changes. At 6 and 8 months, the deficient rats exhibited extensive shortening and disarray of rod outer segments (ROS), marked loss of photoreceptor cells, and pronounced increases in the numbers of granules with lipofuscin-specific autofluorescence in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and retinal vessels. At 14 months, the ultrastructure revealed that the damage to ROS involved disruption of membranes and that the capillary lipofuscin was contained mainly within the endothelial cells. Membrane remnants were found in the lipofuscin granules of both the RPE and retinal vessels. In addition, there was an increase in RCBM thickness (98.7 +/- 2.6 nm vs. 86.9 +/- 2.9 nm). RCBM thickening was the only finding common with diabetic retinopathy, and the thickening was 13.6%, significantly less than that reported in diabetic rat models with 8 and 14 months durations (34% and 53.1%, respectively). Capillary lipofuscin accumulation, which was prominent in the deficient rats, is not notable in diabetes. Both the moderate RCBM thickening and marked lipofuscin accumulations seen in alpha-tocopherol-deficient rats were similar to changes occurring in the aging process, though more pronounced. The spectrum of microangiopathies characteristic of diabetic retinopathy did not develop in alpha-tocopherol-deficient rats. These findings suggest that oxidative damage, though probably involved, is unlikely to play a predominant role in the development of diabetic retinal microangiopathies.