Children with the fetal alcohol syndrome often have ocular anomalies. These include abnormalities of the eyes and adnexa (strabismus, blepharoptosis, epicanthus), as well as intraocular defects (cataract, glaucoma, persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous, retinal and optic nerve anomalies). Based on the clinical results in an ophthalmological study of a group of Swedish children with the fetal alcohol syndrome, in which optic nerve hypoplasia was found in up to one-half of the group, an experimental study was designed in rats pre- and perinatally exposed to alcohol by means of a liquid diet. The optic nerve was seriously affected. Macroglial cells and optic axons were ultrastructurally damaged. The diameter of the optic nerve cross section, glial cell nuclear area, axonal diameter, and the total number of optic axons showed significantly lower values in the alcohol-exposed group than in the controls. In addition, the retina from the alcohol-exposed animals displayed significantly lower values of the retinal thickness and ganglion cell nuclear volume, as compared to the controls. Thus, rats exposed to alcohol in utero developed hypoplasia of the optic nerve similar to the findings in children born to alcoholic mothers. This strongly supports the hypothesis that prenatal alcohol exposure may adversely affect the development of the optic nerve. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.