Insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) stimulates the growth of thyroid cells of different animal species. However, conflicting results have been reported as regards the function and mechanism of the action of IGF-I at the thyroid level. This study was designed to determine whether normal human thyroid cells have IGF-I receptors and whether IGF-I could act on such cells through an autocrine mechanism. Human thyroid follicular cells in primary culture, not contaminated by fibroblasts, were used. They had specific and saturable binding sites for IGF-I, as revealed by radiolabeled binding method, and displayed an average receptor number of 2000/cell. Under the same experimental conditions, insulin receptors were not detectable. Human thyroid follicular cells secreted IGF-I into the culture medium, as assessed by a specific chemiluminescent immunoassay. The IGF-I secretory process was detectable for at least 12 days of culture, but a high degree of variability has been found among individual samples. Acid-gel chromatography demonstrated that IGF-I and a higher mol wt IGF-I, most likely IGF-I bound to its binding protein, were secreted by human thyroid cells. TSH stimulated the secretion of the two molecules in normal human thyroid cells. The TSH effect on IGF-I secretion was concentration dependent between 0.1 nmol/L and 0.1 mumol/L. GH stimulated IGF-I synthesis by thyroid cells in a concentration range from 20-200 micrograms/mL. Since binding studies demonstrated the presence of IGF-I receptors on human thyroid cells, IGF-I probably regulates human thyroid function through an autocrine mechanism.