Ethanol consumption alters electroretinograms and depletes neural tissues of docosahexaenoic acid in rhesus monkeys: nutritional consequences of a low n-3 fatty acid diet

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2001 Dec;25(12):1758-65.


Background: Alcohol amblyopia is a rare neuropathy characterized by the development of blurred vision and a reduction in visual acuity. Further diagnostic details of this condition have shown abnormalities in the electroretinogram (ERG) that include an increase in implicit times in the a- and b-waves and a depression of b-wave amplitude.

Methods: Periodically, the ERGs and the fatty acyl composition of nervous tissue were analyzed from alcohol-consuming rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) (mean consumption 2.6 g kg/day over a 5-year period) and controls that were maintained on a nutritionally sufficient diet that had low, yet adequate, amounts of linoleic acid but very low alpha-linolenic acid.

Results: Animals consuming alcohol had increased a- and b-wave implicit times and decreased b-wave amplitudes in their electroretinograms compared with those of the dietary control group at 2.5 and 5 years. The fatty acyl composition of brain specimens obtained by surgical biopsy at baseline, 2.5 years, and 5 years demonstrated that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) had decreased in both groups of animals compared with baseline values. In the brains of the alcohol-treated animals, DHA was even further decreased (2.5 years: -20%; 5 years: -33%) compared with the diet controls. In the retinas of the alcohol-consuming animals at 5 years, there was a similar decrease in DHA (-35%) compared with controls. Generally, the n-6 fatty acid, docosapentaenoic acid (DPAn-6) increased in these tissues, apparently compensating for the loss of DHA.

Conclusions: A reciprocal change in the DHA/DPAn-6 ratio is known to be associated with abnormal electroretinograms in a number of species. Thus, a marginal intake of n-3 fatty acids in some alcohol abusers may, in part, be responsible for the biochemical changes that underlie the diminished retinal function associated with the visual abnormalities observed in alcohol-amblyopic patients.

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism*
  • Electroretinography*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Fatty Acids / analysis
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / administration & dosage*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / physiology
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Retina / chemistry
  • Vision Disorders / etiology


  • Fatty Acids
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Ethanol