Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids protect against the development and progression of retinopathy, a deterioration of the retina, in mice. This is the major finding of a study that appears in the journal Nature Medicine.
The study was a collaborative effort by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Goteborg in Sweden, and the National Eye Institute (NEI) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NEI, said, "This study explores the potential benefit of dietary omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against the development and progression of retinal disease. The study gives us a better understanding of the biological processes that lead to retinopathy and how to intervene to prevent or slow disease."
The researchers studied the effect of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, derived from fish, and the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid on the loss of blood vessels, the re-growth of healthy vessels, and the growth of destructive abnormal vessels in a mouse model of oxygen-induced retinopathy.
The retinopathy in the mouse shares many characteristics with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) in humans. ROP is a disease of the eyes of prematurely born infants in which the retinal blood vessels increase in number and branch excessively, sometimes leading to bleeding or scarring. Infants who progress to a severe form of ROP are in danger of becoming permanently blind.
There are also aspects of the disease process that may apply to diabetic retinopathy, a disease in which blood vessels swell and leak fluid or grow abnormally on the surface of the retina, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease of the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central vision, and a leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age and older.
The researchers found that increasing omega-3 fatty acids and decreasing omega-6 fatty acids in the diet reduced the area of vessel loss that ultimately causes the growth of the abnormal vessels and blindness. Omega-6 fatty acid contributes to the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina.
To further test the apparent beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acids, the researchers studied mice fed a diet modeled after a traditional Japanese diet (more omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids) and mice fed a diet modeled after a traditional Western diet (lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids).
In addition, they studied mice genetically altered with a gene which mammals normally lack that converts omega-6 into omega-3 fatty acids. They found that the mice with higher amounts of omega-3 had a nearly 50 percent decrease in retinopathy.