Insulin: new roles for an ancient hormone

Eur J Clin Invest. 1999 Oct;29(10):842-52. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2362.1999.00536.x.


Recent research has greatly expanded the domain of insulin action. The classical action of insulin is the control of glucose metabolism through the dual feedback loop linking plasma insulin with plasma glucose concentrations. This canon has been revised to incorporate the impact of insulin resistance or insulin deficiency, both of which alter glucose homeostasis through maladaptive responses (namely, chronic hyperinsulinaemia and glucose toxicity). A large body of knowledge is available on the physiology, cellular biology and molecular genetics of insulin action on glucose production and uptake. More recently, a number of newer actions of insulin have been delineated from in vitro and in vivo studies. In sensitive individuals, insulin inhibits lipolysis and platelet aggregation. In the presence of insulin resistance, dyslipidaemia, hyper-aggregation and anti-fibrinolysis may create a pro-thrombotic milieu. Preliminary evidence indicates that hyperinsulinaemia per se may be pro-oxidant both in vitro and in vivo. Insulin plays a role in mediating diet-induced thermogenesis, and insulin resistance may therefore be implicated in the defective thermogenesis of diabetes. In the kidney, insulin spares sodium and uric acid from excretion; in chronic hyperinsulinaemic states, these effects may contribute to high blood pressure and hyperuricaemia. Insulin hyperpolarises the plasma membranes of both excitable and non-excitable tissues, with consequences ranging from baroreceptor desensitisation to cardiac refractoriness (prolongation of QT interval). Under some circumstances insulin is vasodilatory-the mechanism involving both the sodium-potassium pump and intracellular calcium transients. Finally, by crossing the blood-brain barrier insulin exerts a host a central effects (sympatho-excitation, vagal withdrawal, stimulation of corticotropin releasing factor), collectively resembling a stress reaction. Description and understanding of these new roles, their interactions, the interplay between insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia, and their implications for cardiovascular disease have only begun.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Glucose / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hyperinsulinism
  • Insulin / physiology*
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Lipolysis
  • Models, Biological
  • Platelet Aggregation


  • Insulin
  • Glucose