This review describes (from both the animal and human literature) the biological consequences of losses in nervous system docosahexaenoate (DHA). It then concentrates on biological mechanisms that may serve to explain changes in brain and retinal function. Brief consideration is given to actions of DHA as a nonesterified fatty acid and as a docosanoid or other bioactive molecule.

The role of DHA-phospholipids in regulating G-protein signaling is presented in the context of studies with rhodopsin. It is clear that the visual pigment responds to the degree of unsaturation of the membrane lipids. At the cell biological level, DHA is shown to have a protective role in a cell culture model of apoptosis in relation to its effects in increasing cellular phosphatidylserine (PS); also, the loss of DHA leads to a loss in PS.

Thus, through its effects on PS, DHA may play an important role in the regulation of cell signaling and in cell proliferation. Finally, progress has been made recently in nuclear magnetic resonance studies to delineate differences in molecular structure and order in biomembranes due to subtle changes in the degree of phospholipid unsaturation.