To investigate the relationship between awareness of symptoms and the autonomic reaction of hypoglycaemia, acute hypoglycaemia was induced with intravenous insulin (2.5 mU kg-1 min-1) in diabetic and non-diabetic subjects, all of whom had normal cardiovascular autonomic function tests. Three groups were studied: (1) nine patients with Type 1 diabetes with loss of awareness of hypoglycaemia; (2) eight patients who had normal awareness of hypoglycemia, matched for duration of diabetes and blood glucose control; (3) eleven non-diabetic volunteers. The onset of the acute autonomic reaction was identified objectively by the sudden and rapid responses of heart rate and sweating. Cognitive function and hypoglycaemia symptom scores were estimated serially. Acute autonomic activation was observed to occur in all subjects in response to hypoglycaemia. In the 'unaware' diabetic patients, onset of the reaction occurred at a significantly lower plasma glucose (1.0 +/- 0.1 mmol l-1) than in the 'aware' diabetic patients (1.6 +/- 0.2 mmol l-1) (p less than 0.05) or in the non-diabetic control group (1.4 +/- 0.1 mmol l-1) (p less than 0.05). Obvious neuroglycopenia was observed only in the 'unaware' diabetic group and developed when plasma glucose had declined to approximately 1.4 +/- 0.1 mmol l-1, and thus preceded the reaction (p less than 0.02 vs the autonomic threshold). The maximal rise in plasma adrenaline was of similar magnitude in all three groups but a lower plasma glucose was required to stimulate this hormonal response in the 'unaware' patients, in whom the plasma adrenaline concentration was lower at the time of the reaction. Thus, the plasma glucose at which activation of the autonomic reaction was observed was lower in the diabetic patients with unawareness of hypoglycaemia.