Left ventricular function at rest and during supine bicycle exercise was assessed by gated radionuclide angiography in 20 diabetic patients and 18 normal control subjects without clinical evidence of heart disease. The diabetic patients were aged 21 to 44 years and all except one used insulin. No subject developed chest pain or electrocardiographic changes during exercise. Both groups had a similar rest and exercise heart rate and blood pressure, and both achieved similar work loads. The control group had an ejection fraction at rest of 65.4 +/- 6.2% (mean +/- SD) and only 1 of 18 showed a decrease with exercise; peak exercise ejection fraction averaged 77.1 +/- 7.8%. The diabetic group had a mean ejection fraction at rest of 63.7 +/- 6.5%, similar to that of the control group, but 7 of 20 showed a decrease during exercise; the exercise ejection fraction averaged 67.7 +/- 9.7%, significantly lower than that of the control group (p less than 0.01). The diabetic patients varied widely in ejection fraction response to exercise, ranging from an increase of 25% to a decrease of 21%. This response did not correlate with age, sex, duration of diabetes, smoking, retinopathy, exercise heart rate, blood pressure or rate-pressure product, work load attained or ejection fraction at rest. These data suggest that approximately one-third of patients with diabetes have subclinical left ventricular dysfunction without correlation to risk factors for atherosclerosis or other diabetic complications. Whether this is due to unrecognized coronary artery disease or primary myocardial disease remains unknown.