Pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (PDHC) deficiency is a major cause of congenital lactic acidemia in children. PDHC catalyzes the thiamine-dependent decarboxylation of pyruvate. Thiamine treatment was effective for some patients with PDHC deficiency. We reexamined 30 patients with congenital lactic acidemia of unknown origin who had normal PDHC activity in their cultured fibroblasts using a routine assay with a high (0.4 mM) thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP) concentration. We measured the activity of PDHC in the presence of a low (1x10(-4) mM) TPP concentration, and analyzed for mutations in the E1alpha subunit gene. Three males had low PDHC activity in the presence of 1x10(-4) mM TPP. The DNA sequence of these three patients' X-linked E1alpha subunit revealed a substitution of alanine for valine at position 71 (V71A) in exon 3, phenylalanine for cysteine at position 101 (C101F) in exon 4, and glycine for arginine at position 263 (R263G) in exon 8, respectively. Thiamine treatment was effective in these three patients. Therefore, they had a thiamine-responsive PDHC deficiency due to a point mutation in the E1alpha subunit gene. PDHC activity should be measured at a low TPP concentration to detect thiamine-responsive PDHC deficiency so that thiamine treatment can be initiated as soon as possible.