This study was designed to (1) evaluate retinal lipid peroxidation in early diabetes by the method specific for free malondialdehyde and 4-hydroxyalkenals, (2) identify impaired antioxidative defense mechanisms and (3) assess if enhanced retinal oxidative stress in diabetes is prevented by the potent antioxidant, DL-alpha-lipoic acid. The groups included control and streptozotocin-diabetic rats treated with or without DL-alpha-lipoic acid (100 mg kg(-1) day(-1), i.p., for 6 weeks). All parameters were measured in individual retinae. 4-Hydroxyalkenal concentration was increased in diabetic rats (2.63+/-0.60 vs. 1.44+/-0.30 nmol/mg soluble protein in controls, P<0.01), and this increase was prevented by DL-alpha-lipoic acid (1.20+/-0.88, P<0.01 vs. untreated diabetic group). Malondialdehyde, reduced glutathione (GSH) and oxidized glutathione (GSSG) concentrations were similar among the groups. Superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase (GSHPx), glutathione reductase (GSSGRed) and glutathione transferase (GSHTrans) activities were decreased in diabetic rats vs. controls. Quinone reductase was upregulated in diabetic rats, whereas catalase and cytoplasmic NADH oxidase activities were unchanged. DL-alpha-Lipoic acid prevented changes in superoxide dismutase and quinone reductase activities induced by diabetes without affecting the enzymes of glutathione metabolism. In conclusion, accumulation of 4-hydroxyalkenals is an early marker of oxidative stress in the diabetic retina. Increased lipid peroxidation occurs in the absence of GSH depletion, and is prevented by DL-alpha-lipoic acid.