Lipid-soluble thiamine precursors have a much higher bioavailability than genuine thiamine and therefore are more suitable for therapeutic purposes. Benfotiamine (S-benzoylthiamine O-monophosphate), an amphiphilic S-acyl thiamine derivative, prevents the progression of diabetic complications, probably by increasing tissue levels of thiamine diphosphate and so enhancing transketolase activity. As the brain is particularly sensitive to thiamine deficiency, we wanted to test whether intracellular thiamine and thiamine phosphate levels are increased in the brain after oral benfotiamine administration. Benfotiamine that is practically insoluble in water, organic solvents or oil was solubilized in 200 mM hydroxypropyl-beta-cyclodextrin and the mice received a single oral administration of 100 mg/kg. Though thiamine levels rapidly increased in blood and liver to reach a maximum after one or two hours, no significant increase was observed in the brain. When mice received a daily oral administration of benfotiamine for 14 days, thiamine derivatives were increased significantly in the liver but not in the brain, compared to control mice. In addition, incubation of cultured neuroblastoma cells with 10 muM benfotiamine did not lead to increased intracellular thiamine levels. Moreover, in thiamine-depleted neuroblastoma cells, intracellular thiamine contents increased more rapidly after addition of thiamine to the culture medium than after addition of benfotiamine for which a lag period was observed. Our results show that, though benfotiamine strongly increases thiamine levels in blood and liver, it has no significant effect in the brain. This would explain why beneficial effects of benfotiamine have only been observed in peripheral tissues, while sulbutiamine, a lipid-soluble thiamine disulfide derivative, that increases thiamine derivatives in the brain as well as in cultured cells, acts as a central nervous system drug. We propose that benfotiamine only penetrates the cells after dephosphorylation by intestinal alkaline phosphatases. It then enters the bloodstream as S-benzoylthiamine that is converted to thiamine in erythrocytes and in the liver. Benfotiamine, an S-acyl derivative practically insoluble in organic solvents, should therefore be differentiated from truly lipid-soluble thiamine disulfide derivatives (allithiamine and the synthetic sulbutiamine and fursultiamine) with a different mechanism of absorption and different pharmacological properties.