Plasma insulin levels in healthy subjects oscillate and non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients display an irregular pattern of such oscillations. Since an increase in cytoplasmic free Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i) in the pancreatic beta cell is the major stimulus for insulin release, this study was undertaken to investigate the dynamics of electrical activity, [Ca2+]i-changes and insulin release, in stimulated islets from subjects of varying glucose tolerance. In four patients it was possible to investigate more than one of these three parameters. Stimulation of pancreatic islets with glucose and tolbutamide sometimes resulted in the appearance of oscillations in [Ca2+]i, lasting 2-3 min. Such oscillations were observed even in some islets from patients with impaired glucose tolerance. In one islet from a diabetic patient there was no response to glucose, whereas that islet displayed [Ca2+]i-oscillations in response to tolbutamide, suggesting that sulphonylurea treatment can mimic the complex pattern of glucose-induced [Ca2+]i-oscillations. We also, for the first time, made patch-clamp recordings of membrane currents in beta-cells in situ in the islet. Stimulation with glucose and tolbutamide resulted in depolarization and appearance of action potentials. The islet preparations responded to stimulation with a number of different secretagogues with release of insulin. The present study shows that human islets can respond to stimulation with glucose and sulphonylurea with oscillations in [Ca2+]i, which is the signal probably underlying the oscillations in plasma insulin levels observed in healthy subjects. Interestingly, even subjects with impaired glucose tolerance had islets that responded with oscillations in [Ca2+]i upon glucose stimulation, although it is not known to what extent the response of these islets was representative of most islets in these patients.