Metabolic abnormalities observed in retina and in cerebral cortex were compared in diabetic rats and experimentally galactosemic rats. Diabetes or experimental galactosemia of 2 months duration significantly increased oxidative stress in retina, as shown by elevation of retinal thiobarbituric acid reactive substances (TBARS) and subnormal activities of antioxidant defense enzymes, but had no such effect in the cerebral cortex. Activities of sodium potassium adenosine triphosphatase [(Na,K)-ATPase] and calcium ATPase became subnormal in retina as well as in cerebral cortex. In contrast, protein kinase C (PKC) activity was elevated in retina but not in cerebral cortex in the same hyperglycemic rats. Dietary supplementation with an antioxidant mixture (containing ascorbic acid, Trolox, alpha-tocopherol acetate, N-acetyl cysteine, beta-carotene, and selenium) prevented the diabetes-induced and galactosemia-induced elevation of retinal oxidative stress, the elevation of retinal PKC activity and the decrease of retinal ATPases. In cerebral cortex, administration of the antioxidant diet also prevented the diabetes-induced decreases in (Na,K)-ATPase and calcium ATPases, but had no effect on TBARS and activities of PKC and antioxidant-defense enzymes. The results indicate that retina and cerebral cortex differ distinctly in their response to elevation of tissue hexose, and that cerebral cortex is more resistant than retina to diabetes-induced oxidative stress. The greater resistance to oxidative stress in cerebral cortex, as compared to retina, is consistent with the resistance of cerebral cortex to microvascular disease in diabetes, and with a hypothesis that oxidative stress contributes to microvascular disease in diabetes. Dietary supplementation with these antioxidants offers a means to inhibit multiple hyperglycemia-induced retinal metabolic abnormalities.