The effects of insulin and norepinephrine on glucose transport, glucose uptake, and cell respiration were investigated in isolated rat brown adipocytes. Glucose transport and uptake were determined using [U-14C]-D-glucose and 2-deoxy-[1,2-3H]-D-glucose, respectively. Brown adipocyte respiration was measured polarographically. Dose-response experiments revealed that insulin stimulated D-glucose transport and 2-deoxyglucose uptake between 10(-11) and 10(-7) M with a maximal four- to sixfold stimulation. In the absence of insulin, norepinephrine concentrations ranging from 10(-7) to 10(-7) M also enhanced glucose transport and uptake with a maximal two- to fourfold stimulation. Experiments with alpha- and beta-adrenergic agonists and antagonists showed that the effect of norepinephrine was predominantly mediated via beta-adrenergic pathways. Dibutyryl cyclic AMP and 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine also increased glucose transport, suggesting that the effects of norepinephrine are cyclic AMP dependent. Moreover, norepinephrine (10(-8) M) enhanced insulin sensitivity for glucose transport [half-maximum velocity constant (1/2 V max)] but failed to potentiate insulin responsiveness (Vmax). On the other hand, insulin (10(-9) M) had no effect on basal respiration but rapidly inhibited the calorigenic effect of norepinephrine (10(-7) M) by greater than 50%. These results demonstrate that 1) in the absence of insulin, physiological concentrations of norepinephrine stimulate glucose transport via beta-adrenergic pathways, 2) the neurohormone synergistically potentiates brown adipocyte submaximal insulin responses for glucose transport, and 3) insulin counteracts the effects of norepinephrine on brown adipocyte thermogenesis despite the fact that both hormones enhance glucose uptake.