OBJECTIVE To determine whether acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), a metabolite necessary for energy metabolism and essential fatty acid anabolism, might help attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Trials in Down's syndrome, migraine, and Alzheimer's disease showed benefit for attention. A preliminary trial in ADHD using L-carnitine reported significant benefit. METHOD A multi-site 16-week pilot study randomized 112 children (83 boys, 29 girls) age 5-12 with systematically diagnosed ADHD to placebo or ALC in weight-based doses from 500 to 1500 mg b.i.d. The 2001 revisions of the Conners' parent and teacher scales (including DSM-IV ADHD symptoms) were administered at baseline, 8, 12, and 16 weeks. Analyses were ANOVA of change from baseline to 16 weeks with treatment, center, and treatment-by-center interaction as independent variables. RESULTS The primary intent-to-treat analysis, of 9 DSM-IV teacher-rated inattentive symptoms, was not significant. However, secondary analyses were interesting. There was significant (p = 0.02) moderation by subtype: superiority of ALC over placebo in the inattentive type, with an opposite tendency in combined type. There was also a geographic effect (p = 0.047). Side effects were negligible; electrocardiograms, lab work, and physical exam unremarkable. CONCLUSION ALC appears safe, but with no effect on the overall ADHD population (especially combined type). It deserves further exploration for possible benefit specifically in the inattentive type.