Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a leading cause of blindness globally and its pathogenesis has still not been completely elucidated. Some studies show a close relation between oxidative stress and DR. This study was aimed to investigate the effects of anti-oxidant in DR and expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) from retinal blood vessels in diabetic rats. Diabetic rat models were established by intraperitoneal injection of streptozotocin (60 mg/kg) and confirmation of high serum glucose levels in the animals. Antioxidant N-acetylcysteine was given to diabetic rats to elicit antioxidative responses, and rats were sacrificed at 3 and 5 months. Ultrastructures of retinal vascular tissues were observed under transmission electron microscope, and pathology of retinal capillaries was examined using retinal vascular digest preparations. Changes in the expression of VEGF and ICAM-1 were examined by immunofluorescence; and reactive oxygen species contents in the retinas were detected using dichlorofluorescein assay. Compared with normal rats, diabetic rats displayed significant retinopathy both under electronic and light microscopy, accompanied by elevated reactive oxygen species contents in the retinas; N-acetylcysteine treatment alleviated the pathological changes and also decreased reactive oxygen species, most significantly at 5 months. VEGF and ICAM-1 expressions were significantly up-regulated in retinal blood vessels from diabetic rats, and such up-regulation was attenuated by N-acetylcysteine treatment. The expression of both factors returned to basal levels after 5-month treatment with N-acetylcysteine. Long-term N-acetylcysteine treatment exerts protective effects on the diabetic retinas, possibly through its down-regulation of the expression of VEGF and ICAM-1, and reduction of reactive oxygen species content in retinal vascular tissues in diabetic rats.