Rats were fed a control or vitamin E (all-rac-alpha-tocopheryl acetate)-deficient diet for 3 or 12 weeks. Serotonin (5-HT), 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA), tryptophan, and alpha-tocopherol concentrations were determined in the frontal cortex using HPLC, alpha-Tocopherol concentrations fell significantly to 27% of control values at 12 weeks. Tissue 5-HT, 5-HIAA, and tryptophan concentrations were not significantly altered by the vitamin E-deficient diet at either time point. In vivo microdialysis revealed normal basal and K(+)-stimulated concentrations of 5-HT and 5-HIAA, but extracellular concentrations of tryptophan were significantly decreased after 3 weeks on the vitamin E-deficient diet, which resulted in an increase in the tissue/extracellular ratio and suggested a change in compartmentation. However, after 12 weeks on the deficient diet these values had returned to normal. Results in general indicate that a prolonged and substantial depletion of brain vitamin E can occur without major disturbance of serotonergic function.