Mechanisms of Insulin Action and Insulin Resistance

Physiol Rev. 2018 Oct 1;98(4):2133-2223. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00063.2017.


The 1921 discovery of insulin was a Big Bang from which a vast and expanding universe of research into insulin action and resistance has issued. In the intervening century, some discoveries have matured, coalescing into solid and fertile ground for clinical application; others remain incompletely investigated and scientifically controversial. Here, we attempt to synthesize this work to guide further mechanistic investigation and to inform the development of novel therapies for type 2 diabetes (T2D). The rational development of such therapies necessitates detailed knowledge of one of the key pathophysiological processes involved in T2D: insulin resistance. Understanding insulin resistance, in turn, requires knowledge of normal insulin action. In this review, both the physiology of insulin action and the pathophysiology of insulin resistance are described, focusing on three key insulin target tissues: skeletal muscle, liver, and white adipose tissue. We aim to develop an integrated physiological perspective, placing the intricate signaling effectors that carry out the cell-autonomous response to insulin in the context of the tissue-specific functions that generate the coordinated organismal response. First, in section II, the effectors and effects of direct, cell-autonomous insulin action in muscle, liver, and white adipose tissue are reviewed, beginning at the insulin receptor and working downstream. Section III considers the critical and underappreciated role of tissue crosstalk in whole body insulin action, especially the essential interaction between adipose lipolysis and hepatic gluconeogenesis. The pathophysiology of insulin resistance is then described in section IV. Special attention is given to which signaling pathways and functions become insulin resistant in the setting of chronic overnutrition, and an alternative explanation for the phenomenon of ‟selective hepatic insulin resistanceˮ is presented. Sections V, VI, and VII critically examine the evidence for and against several putative mediators of insulin resistance. Section V reviews work linking the bioactive lipids diacylglycerol, ceramide, and acylcarnitine to insulin resistance; section VI considers the impact of nutrient stresses in the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria on insulin resistance; and section VII discusses non-cell autonomous factors proposed to induce insulin resistance, including inflammatory mediators, branched-chain amino acids, adipokines, and hepatokines. Finally, in section VIII, we propose an integrated model of insulin resistance that links these mediators to final common pathways of metabolite-driven gluconeogenesis and ectopic lipid accumulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Adipose Tissue / pathology
  • Animals
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / pathology
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism*
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Liver / pathology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology


  • Insulin