Thiamine is required for all tissues and is found in high concentrations in skeletal muscle, heart, liver, kidneys and brain. A state of severe depletion is seen in patients on a strict thiamine-deficient diet in 18 days, but the most common cause of thiamine deficiency in affluent countries is alcoholism. Thiamine diphosphate is the active form of thiamine, and it serves as a cofactor for several enzymes involved primarily in carbohydrate catabolism. The enzymes are important in the biosynthesis of a number of cell constituents, including neurotransmitters, and for the production of reducing equivalents used in oxidant stress defenses and in biosyntheses and for synthesis of pentoses used as nucleic acid precursors. Because of the latter fact, thiamine utilization is increased in tumor cells. Thiamine uptake by the small intestines and by cells within various organs is mediated by a saturable, high affinity transport system. Alcohol affects thiamine uptake and other aspects of thiamine utilization, and these effects may contribute to the prevalence of thiamine deficiency in alcoholics. The major manifestations of thiamine deficiency in humans involve the cardiovascular (wet beriberi) and nervous (dry beriberi, or neuropathy and/or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) systems. A number of inborn errors of metabolism have been described in which clinical improvements can be documented following administration of pharmacological doses of thiamine, such as thiamine-responsive megaloblastic anemia. Substantial efforts are being made to understand the genetic and biochemical determinants of inter-individual differences in susceptibility to development of thiamine deficiency-related disorders and of the differential vulnerabilities of tissues and cell types to thiamine deficiency.