Abstract The fatty acid profiles of phosphatidyl ethanolamine (PE) and phosphatidyl choline (PC) of the red blood cells of 30 patients with mild inactive multiple sclerosis (MS) and 30 healthy controls were studied by gas chromatography. The groups were well matched for factors likely to influence tissue lipid levels, including diet. The MS patients showed a significant reduction in PE eicosapentaenoic acid (p = 0.009) especially in women, and an increase in both PE dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (p = 0.004) and PC stearic acid (p = 0.04). No reduction in linoleic acid was observed in either the PC or PE fractions of the MS subjects. A similar study of the fatty acid profile in adipose tissue in 26 MS and 35 healthy controls found no detectable eicosapentaenoic acid in either group. However, whereas docosahexaenoic acid was not detectable in any MS patient, 40% of the controls had measurable levels varying from to 0.1 to 0.3% of total estimated fatty acid (p = 0.0003). No reduction in linoleic acid in MS subjects was observed. Supplementation with oral fish body oil demonstrated that n - 3 fatty acids were incorporated into red blood cells over 5 weeks and this occurred equally in MS and controls. The effects of oral supplementation on adipose tissue were studied after 1 and 2 years. Whereas many fatty acids such as linoleic acid were raised at 1 year, but did not rise subsequently, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid continued to rise through the 2-year period. Long chain n - 3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids may be important in the development of the central nervous system and may be relevant to the pathogenesis and treatment of MS.