Lutein and zeaxanthin are xanthophylls selectively accumulated by primate retinas that may protect the macula from age-related macular degeneration. In this project, we manipulated
n−3 fatty acids, lutein and/or zeaxanthin levels in the diet and studied their possible outcome on S-cone and rod cell density in the foveal region. Rhesus monkeys (7–16 year,
n=17) were fed from birth xanthophyll-free semipurified diets with either adequate or low
n−3 fatty acids. Five monkeys were supplemented with lutein and six with zeaxanthin for 6–24 months, while six remained xanthophyll-free until sacrifice. Retinas were embedded in methacrylate and serial 2
μm sections were cut along the vertical meridian. Rod nuclei, and immunolabelled outer segments of S-cones and rods, were reconstructed and counted in an 8
μm strip. The density profiles were compared with data from control monkeys (
n=7) fed a standard laboratory diet.
S-cone density profiles were symmetrical along the vertical meridian and the densities decreased rapidly with retinal eccentricity. Rod densities were higher in the superior region than the inferior region in most of the control and experimental animals. Unlike the significant effects observed for retinal pigment epithelial cells of these same monkeys (Leung, I.Y-F., Sandstrom, M.M., Zucker, C.L., Neuringer, M., Snodderly, D.M., 2004. Nutritional manipulation of primate retinas. II. Effects of age,
n−3 fatty acids, lutein, and zeaxanthin on retinal pigment epithelium. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 45, 3244–3256), neither xanthophyll supplementation nor low dietary
n−3 fatty acids produced consistent effects on S-cone or rod density profiles of the experimental animals. However, monkeys low in
n−3 fatty acids had increased variability of S-cone density in the fovea and low density of foveal rod outer segments. The high variability suggests that the photoreceptors of some animals were resistant to the nutritional manipulations, while others may have been affected. Thus, the photoreceptors appear less sensitive than the retinal pigment epithelium to these nutritional manipulations. However, it is possible that more consistent effects would emerge at a later age or after exposure to stressors such as high light levels.