The cirrhotic liver has been shown to be resistant to the actions of various glucoregulatory hormones. The objective of this study was to investigate the effects of epinephrine on hepatic glucose metabolism in cirrhotic patients. Thirteen cirrhotic and eight healthy subjects were studied. Hepatic glucose production and turnover of alanine and glycerol were measured using stable isotope technique before and during 70 and 150 minutes of epinephrine infusion (0.1 microgram/kg/min). beta-Adrenoreceptor binding sites and affinity in mononuclear leukocyte membranes also were determined. Hepatic glucose production and alanine turnover in normals significantly increased during epinephrine infusion, but did not change in cirrhotics. Glycerol turnover increased after 70 minutes of epinephrine infusion in both groups. Epinephrine induced a significant rise of high-affinity beta-adrenoreceptor binding sites in normals, yielding a significant correlation between hepatic glucose production and receptor density (r = .94, P < .0001). In cirrhotic patients, similar changes in the number of high-affinity beta-adrenoreceptors were observed, but no correlation with hepatic glucose production was detected. The cirrhotic liver did not respond normally to the stimulatory effect of epinephrine on hepatic glucose production. Because this blunted response was not related to changes of beta-adrenoreceptors, our findings suggest that epinephrine resistance in cirrhosis was caused by a postreceptor defect.