To examine the mechanisms by which immunosuppression by steroids impairs glycogen synthesis in human skeletal muscle, we measured glycogen synthase protein content and activity in muscle samples from 14 patients receiving corticosteroid therapy after kidney transplantation and in 20 healthy control subjects. A percutaneous muscle sample was taken before and at the end of a euglycemic hyperinsulinemic insulin clamp. Insulin-stimulated glucose disposal was reduced by 33% in kidney transplant patients compared with healthy controls (33.8 +/- 4.2 vs. 50.5 +/- 2.7 mumol (kg LBM)-1 min-1; P<0.01), primarily due to a decrease in nonoxidative glucose metabolism (14.2 +/- 3.3 vs. 32.3 +/- 2.7 mumol (kg LBM)-1 min-1; P<0.001). Glycogen synthase activity measured at both 0.1 mmol/L (17.6 +/- 2.6 vs. 24.0 +/- 2.2 nmol min-1 mg protein-1; P<0.05), and at 10 mmol/L glucose 6-phosphate (24.1 +/- 3.5 vs. 33.7 +- 2.4 nmol min-1 mg protein-1; P<0.05) and glycogen synthase protein concentrations (8.8 +/- 1.8 vs. 18.9 +/- 1.9 relative units per ng DNA; P<0.01) were lower in kidney transplant patients compared with controls. Glycogen synthase protein correlated with nonoxidative glucose metabolism (r=0.42; P=0.04). Alpha-actinin (used as a control of general protein degradation) was lower in kidney transplant patients compared with controls (4.4 +/- 0.8 vs. 9.6 +/- 1.1 cpm/ng DNA; P<0.01). In conclusion, corticosteroids cause insulin resistance, which correlates with impaired activation of glycogen synthase and decreased enzyme protein content. The decrease in glycogen synthase protein may reflect increased degradation rather than a defect in translation.