Animal studies have been of pivotal importance in advancing knowledge of the metabolism and roles of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids and the effects of specific dietary intakes on membrane composition and related functions. Advantages of animal studies include the rigid control of fatty acid and other nutrient intakes and the degree, timing, and duration of deficiency or excess, the absence of confounding environmental and clinical variables, and the tissue analysis and testing procedures that cannot be performed in human studies.

However, differences among species in nutrient requirements and metabolism and the severity and duration of the dietary treatment must be considered before extrapolating results to humans. Studies in rodents and nonhuman primates fed diets severely deficient in alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) showed altered visual function and behavioral problems, and played a fundamental role by identifying neural systems that may be sensitive to dietary n-3 fatty acid intakes; this information has assisted researchers in planning clinical studies.

However, whereas animal studies have focused mainly on 18:3n-3 deficiency, there is considerable clinical interest in docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) and arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) supplementation.

Information from animal studies suggests that brain and retinal concentrations of 22:6n-3 plateau with 18:3n-3 intakes of approximately 0.7% of energy, but this requirement is influenced by dietary 18:2n-6 intake. Blood and tissue concentrations of 22:6n-3 increase as 22:6n-3 intake increases, with adverse effects on growth and function at high intakes.

Animal studies can provide important information on the mechanisms of both beneficial and adverse effects and the pathways of brain 22:6n-3 uptake.