We studied the mechanisms and physiological relevance of the cephalic insulin response to meal ingestion in 12 healthy women (age 63 +/- 0.4 years; BMI 27.7 +/- 1.7 kg/m2). The ganglionic antagonist, trimethaphan, which impairs neurotransmission across parasympathetic and sympathetic autonomic ganglia, or atropine or saline was given intravenously during the first 15 min after ingestion of a standard meal (350 kcal). During saline infusion, insulin levels increased during the first 10 min after meal ingestion, whereas the first increase in glucose was evident at 15 min. The preabsorptive 10-min insulin response was reduced by 73 +/- 11% by trimethaphan (P = 0.009), accompanied by impaired reduction of glucose levels from 25 to 60 min after meal ingestion (deltaglucose = -1.27 +/- 0.5 [with saline] vs. 0.1 +/- 0.4 mmol/l [with trimethaphan]; P = 0.008). This reduction at 25-60 min in glucose levels correlated significantly to the 10-min insulin response (r = 0.65, P = 0.024). The 10-min insulin response to meal ingestion was also reduced by atropine, but only by 20 +/- 9% (P = 0.045), which was lower than the reduction with trimethaphan (P = 0.004). The preabsorptive insulin response was not accompanied by any increase in circulating levels of gastric inhibitory polypeptide (GIP) or glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). In conclusion, 1) the early preabsorptive insulin response to meal ingestion in humans can be largely attributed to autonomic activation mediated by noncholinergic and cholinergic mechanisms, 2) this cephalic insulin response is required for a normal postprandial glucose tolerance, and 3) GIP and GLP-1 do not contribute to the preabsorptive cephalic phase insulin response to meal ingestion.