We test whether the dysfunction with age of carnitine acetyltransferase (CAT), a key mitochondrial enzyme for fuel utilization, is due to decreased binding affinity for substrate and whether this substrate, fed to old rats, restores CAT activity. The kinetics of CAT were analyzed by using the brains of young and old rats and of old rats supplemented for 7 weeks with the CAT substrate acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) and/or the mitochondrial antioxidant precursor R-alpha-lipoic acid (LA). Old rats, compared with young rats, showed a decrease in CAT activity and in CAT-binding affinity for both substrates, ALCAR and CoA. Feeding ALCAR or ALCAR plus LA to old rats significantly restored CAT-binding affinity for ALCAR and CoA, and CAT activity. To explore the underlying mechanism, lipid peroxidation and total iron and copper levels were assayed; all increased in old rats. Feeding old rats LA or LA plus ALCAR inhibited lipid peroxidation but did not decrease iron and copper levels. Ex vivo oxidation of young-rat brain with Fe(II) caused loss of CAT activity and binding affinity. In vitro oxidation of purified CAT with Fe(II) inactivated the enzyme but did not alter binding affinity. However, in vitro treatment of CAT with the lipid peroxidation products malondialdehyde or 4-hydroxy-nonenal caused a decrease in CAT-binding affinity and activity, thus mimicking age-related change. Preincubation of CAT with ALCAR or CoA prevented malondialdehyde-induced dysfunction. Thus, feeding old rats high levels of key mitochondrial metabolites can ameliorate oxidative damage, enzyme activity, substrate-binding affinity, and mitochondrial dysfunction.