Using time-dependent methods, the temporal relationships between the detection of insulin and islet cell autoantibodies and the onset of insulin dependent diabetes (IDDM) were analyzed in a prospective study of 4694 nondiabetic relatives of 1929 patients with IDDM who had been followed for a median of 4 yr. Insulin autoantibodies were detected in 1.5% of relatives at their initial test whereas an additional 1.0% subsequently became positive for these antibodies during follow-up. Islet cell autoantibodies were detected in 2.6% of the relatives at the time of their first test and an additional 0.9% were observed to develop them during the follow-up period. The risk of developing IDDM was significantly higher (P = 0.0001) among those who were found to have one of these antibodies, but was highest among those under the age of 20 yr at inception of this study who tested positive for both. Among older relatives, the detection of insulin autoantibodies among those who were islet cell antibody positive did not convey an additional risk of IDDM. In a subset of relatives, the presence of either antibody was associated with a higher frequency (P < 0.001) of diabetes associated human leukocyte antigen-DR 3/4 heterozygotes. Islet cell autoantibodies were highly associated with elevated fasting and 60-min glucose concentrations (P = 0.0001) as well as decreased early phase (1 and 3 min) insulin response to an iv glucose tolerance test (P = 0.0001). Insulin antibodies were significantly associated with decreased early phase insulin response to iv glucose (P = 0.0003). These data confirm independent risks associated with each antibody and suggest that their temporal relationship may be an important reflection of the pathogenic process underlying IDDM observations which facilitate its predictability.