Insulin action on carbohydrate metabolism is known to be reduced in liver cirrhosis. However, little is known about the effect of insulin on free fatty acid (FFA) metabolism in these patients. To investigate this aspect we performed a two-step insulin euglycemic clamp in 11 cirrhotic patients and 6 controls. Insulin was infused at 0.25 mU/Kg min from 0 to 100 min and at 1 mU/Kg from 100 to 200 min. The FFA lowering capacity of insulin was studied during the first step; the glucose metabolizing capacity (M) was evaluated during the second step. In the cirrhotic patients, the M value was lower than in controls (3.91 +/- 0.48 vs 7.75 +/- 1.09 mg/kg/min, respectively). During the low insulin infusion, FFA and glycerol plasma levels were decreased in both groups. However, the ability of insulin to suppress plasma FFA and glycerol was lower in cirrhotics than in controls. In fact, at 100 min, FFA were 50% of basal values in cirrhotics and 20% in controls (p less than 0.01), while glycerol plasma levels decreased to 70% of basal values in patients and to 56% in controls. The slope of the linear regression obtained between Ln-FFA concentrations vs time was significantly less in cirrhotic patients than in controls (p less than 0.001). In addition, a positive correlation was found between the M value (r = 0.70; p less than 0.01) and the slope of the Ln-FFA in each patient. These findings suggest that in cirrhotic patients the effects of insulin on both FFA and glucose metabolism are reduced.