Epidemiological data indicate that low n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PFA) intake is a readily manipulated dietary risk factor for Alzheimer's disease (AD). Studies in animals confirm the deleterious effect of n-3 PFA depletion on cognition and on dendritic scaffold proteins. Here, we show that in transgenic mice overexpressing the human AD gene APPswe (Tg2576), safflower oil-induced n-3 PFA deficiency caused a decrease in N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunits, NR2A and NR2B, in the cortex and hippocampus with no loss of the presynaptic markers, synaptophysin and synaptosomal-associated protein 25 (SNAP-25). n-3 PFA depletion also decreased the NR1 subunit in the hippocampus and Ca(2+)/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase (CaMKII) in the cortex of Tg2576 mice. These effects of dietary n-3 PFA deficiency were greatly amplified in Tg2576 mice compared to nontransgenic mice. Loss of the NR2B receptor subunit was not explained by changes in mRNA expression, but correlated with p85α phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase levels. Most interestingly, n-3 PFA deficiency dramatically increased levels of protein fragments, corresponding to caspase/calpain-cleaved fodrin and gelsolin in Tg2576 mice. This effect was minimal in nontransgenic mice suggesting that n-3 PFA depletion potentiated caspase activation in the Tg2576 mouse model of AD. Dietary supplementation with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22 : 6n-3) partly protected from NMDA receptor subunit loss and accumulation of fodrin and gelsolin fragments but fully prevented CaMKII decrease. The marked effect of dietary n-3 PFA on NMDA receptors and caspase/calpain activation in the cortex of an animal model of AD provide new insights into how dietary essential fatty acids may influence cognition and AD risk.