1. Autonomic neuropathy is a common complication of diabetes mellitus and is a major risk factor for sudden death. 2. A group of 30 patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and 30 age-, sex- and blood pressure-matched control subjects underwent traditional tests of autonomic function. Resting supine R-R interval and systolic blood pressure variability were assessed using spectral analysis methods. In addition, we assessed the baroreceptor-cardiac reflex from the linear relation of the change in R-R interval to the increasing systolic blood pressure measured non-invasively with the Finapres monitor during phase 4 of the Valsalva manoeuvre and from resting heart rate and systolic blood pressure power spectra. 3. Whereas standard tests of autonomic function revealed no differences between patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and control subjects, there was a significant reduction in power spectral density of heart rate variability around the high-frequency region (125.2 +/- 112.9 versus 459.3 +/- 189.8 ms2, mean +/- SD). Furthermore, reductions in baroreflex sensitivity calculated from the Valsalva manoeuvre were detected in diabetics compared with controls (3.3 +/- 1.6 versus 9.5 +/- 2.5 ms/mmHg, mean +/- SD, P < 0.00001). There were significant relations between impairment of the baroreflex and duration of diabetes (P < 0.001) and poor diabetic control (P < 0.05). 4. In summary, autonomic dysfunction occurs much more frequently in diabetic patients than conventional tests would suggest. Abnormal baroreceptor-cardiac reflex sensitivity in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus may in part be explained by abnormal parasympathetic function. This unrecognized abnormality may have a role in the increased incidence of sudden death seen in young diabetic subjects.