Feeding rats diets containing oils that have a low alpha-linolenic acid [18:3(n-3)] content, such as sunflower oil, results in reduced amounts of docosahexaenoic acid [22:6(n-3)] in all brain cells and organelles compared to rats fed a diet containing soybean oil or rapeseed oil. During the period of cerebral development there is a linear relationship between the n-3 fatty acid content of the brain and that of food until alpha-linolenic acid represents approximately 200 mg/100 g food [0.4% of the total dietary energy for 18:3(n-3)]. Beyond that point brain levels reach a plateau. Similar values are also found for other organs. The level of 22:6(n-3) in membranes is little affected by the dietary quantity of linoleic acid [18:2(n-6)] if 18:3(n-3) represents approximately 0.4% of energy. In membranes from rats fed diets containing sunflower oil, Na+, K(+)-ATPase activity in nerve terminals was 60%, 5'-nucleotidase in whole brain homogenate was 80%, and 2',3'-cyclic nucleotide 3'-phosphodiesterase was 88% of that in membranes from rats fed diets containing soybean oil. A diet low in alpha-linolenic acid leads to anomalies in the electroretinogram, which partially disappear with age. It has little effect on motor activity, but it seriously affects learning tasks as measured with the shuttle box test. Rats fed a diet low in alpha-linolenic acid showed an earlier mortality in response to an intraperitoneal injection of a neurotoxin, triethyltin, than did rats fed a normal soybean oil diet.