The abnormalities underlying diabetic neuropathy appear to be multiple and involve metabolic neuronal and vasomediated defects. The accumulation of long-chain fatty acids and impaired beta-oxidation due to deficiencies in carnitine and/or its esterified derivatives, such as acetyl-L-carnitine, may have deleterious effects. In the present study, we examined, in the diabetic bio-breeding Worcester rat, the short- and long-term effects of acetyl-L-carnitine administration on peripheral nerve polyols, myoinositol, Na+/K+ -ATPase, vasoactive prostaglandins, nerve conduction velocity, and pathologic changes. Short-term prevention (4 mo) with acetyl-L-carnitine had no effects on nerve polyols, but corrected the Na+/K+ -ATPase defect and was associated with 63% prevention of the nerve conduction defect and complete prevention of structural changes. Long-term prevention (8 mo) and intervention (from 4 to 8 mo) with acetyl-L-carnitine treatment normalized nerve PGE(1) whereas 6-keto PGF(1-alpha) and PGE(2) were unaffected. In the prevention study, the conduction defect was 73% prevented and structural abnormalities attenuated. Intervention with acetyl-L-carnitine resulted in 76% recovery of the conduction defect and corrected neuropathologic changes characteristic of 4-mo diabetic rats. Acetyl-L-carnitine treatment promoted nerve fiber regeneration, which was increased two-fold compared to nontreated diabetic rats. These results demonstrate that acetyl-L-carnitine has a preventive effect on the acute Na+/- K+_ATPase defect and a preventive and corrective effect on PGE1 in chronically diabetic nerve associated with improvements of nerve conduction velocity and pathologic changes.