The respective modulating effects of continuous and intermittent insulin delivery on pancreatic islet cell function were studied in seven normal men and nine insulin-dependent (type 1) diabetic patients. In the normal men, saline or continuous (0.8 mU kg-1 min-1) or pulsatile (5.2 mU kg-1 min-1, with a switching on/off length of 2/11 min) human insulin were delivered on different days and in random order. Despite hyperinsulinemia, blood glucose was kept close to its basal value by the glucose clamp technique. The diabetic patients also were infused in random order and on different days with either saline or a smaller amount of insulin delivered continuously (0.15 mU kg-1 min-1) or in a pulsatile manner (0.97 mU kg-1 min-1 for 2 min, followed by 11 min during which no insulin was infused). In all experiments, 5 g arginine were given iv as a bolus dose 30 min before the end of the study, and plasma C-peptide and glucagon levels were determined to assess islet cell function. In the normal men, insulin administration resulted in a significant decline of basal plasma glucagon and C-peptide levels and in a clear-cut decrease in the arginine-induced glucagon response. These effects of insulin were significantly more marked when insulin was delivered in a pulsatile rather than a continuous manner. In the insulin-dependent diabetic patients, the lower dose of insulin infused continuously did not alter the basal or arginine-stimulated glucagon response. In contrast, when the same amount of insulin was delivered intermittently, arginine-induced glucagon release was greatly reduced. Thus, these data support the concept that insulin per se is a potent physiological modulator of islet A- and B-cell function. Furthermore, they suggest that these effects of insulin are reinforced when the hormone is administered in an intermittent manner in an attempt to reproduce the pulsatile physiological release of insulin.