Nutritional restriction of omega-3 fatty acids alters topographical fine tuning and leads to a delay in the critical period in the rodent visual system

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The development and maturation of sensory systems depends on the correct pattern of connections which occurs during a critical period when axonal elimination and synaptic plasticity are involved in the formation of topographical maps. Among the mechanisms involved in synaptic stabilization, essential fatty acids (EFAs), available only through diet, appear as precursors of signaling molecules involved in modulation of gene expression and neurotransmitter release. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are considered EFAs and are accumulated in the brain during fetal period and neonatal development. In this study, we demonstrated the effect of omega-3/DHA nutritional restriction in the long-term stabilization of connections in the visual system. Female rats were fed 5 weeks before mating with either a control (soy oil) or a restricted (coconut oil) diet. Litters were fed until postnatal day 13 (PND13), PND28 or PND42 with the same diets when they received an intraocular injection of HRP. Another group received a single retinal lesion at the temporal periphery at PND21. Omega-3 restriction induced an increase in the optical density in the superficial layers of the SC, as a result of axonal sprouting outside the main terminal zones. This effect was observed throughout the SGS, including the ventral and intermediate sub-layers at PND13 and also at PND28 and PND42. The quantification of optical densities strongly suggests a delay in axonal elimination in the omega3− groups. The supplementation with fish oil (DHA) was able to completely reverse the abnormal expansion of the retinocollicular projection. The same pattern of expanded terminal fields was also observed in the ipsilateral retinogeniculate pathway. The critical period window was studied in lesion experiments in either control or omega-3/DHA restricted groups. DHA restriction induced an increased sprouting of intact, ipsilateral axons at the deafferented region of the superior colliculus compared to the control group, revealing an abnormal extension of the critical period. Finally, in omega-3 restricted group we observed in the collicular visual layers normal levels of GAP-43 with decreased levels of its phosphorylated form, p-GAP-43, consistent with a reduction in synaptic stabilization. The data indicate, therefore, that chronic dietary restriction of omega-3 results in a reduction in DHA levels which delays axonal elimination and critical period closure, interfering with the maintenance of terminal fields in the visual system.


▸ Early omega-3 nutritional restriction induces a reduction in DHA levels in litters. ▸ DHA reduction delays the development of axonal topography in the visual system. ▸ DHA reduction results in expanded connections in the visual system. ▸ DHA reduction abnormally extends the critical period of development. ▸ DHA reduction reduces the content of pGAP-43 suggesting less stable synapses.

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