The hypothesis that lipolytic hormones reduce the mitochondrial electrical potential in rat white adipocytes via free fatty acids (FFA) was examined. Hormonal effects on plasma and mitochondrial membrane potentials were evaluated with [3H]triphenylmethylphosphonium (TPMP+) and 86Rb+. FFA generation was controlled by varying medium albumin concentrations. In 4.0% albumin buffer, adrenocorticotropin or l-epinephrine increased intracellular FFAs, produced cellular TPMP+ efflux, ATP depletion, release of FFAs and glycerol, and no change in 86Rb+ distribution. In 0.5% albumin buffer, greater intracellular FFA accumulation accompanied greater TPMP+ and ATP depletion, significant loss of cell-associated 86Rb+, and a concomitant inhibition of FFA and glycerol release. Exogenous addition of FFAs mimicked the effect of hormones on adipocyte TPMP+ distribution. TPMP+ and 86Rb+ uptake into adipocyte "ghosts" were unaffected by hormones. We suggest that mitochondrial membrane depolarization is a metabolic response to hormones via FFA accumulation by white adipocytes. The additional hormonal effects that were observed in 0.5% albumin buffer may be related to inhibition of lipolysis secondary to intracellular ATP depletion.