Severe hypoglycaemia with cognitive dysfunction is 3 times more common in intensively, rather than conventionally, treated insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). To investigate the effect of diabetes control on higher brain function during acute hypoglycaemia, we studied one of the earliest detectable changes in cognitive function, i.e. the four-choice reaction time, and symptomatic and hormonal responses during euglycaemic and hypoglycaemic clamping in human subjects. There were no changes in symptoms or counterregulatory hormones and four-choice reaction time was stable during 220 min of euglycaemic insulin clamping in five men with IDDM, with a coefficient of variation of less than 2.2% (1% for accuracy) for the cognitive function test. During stepped hypoglycaemic clamping however, hormonal responses and subjective awareness of hypoglycaemia occurred in all groups but started at much lower blood glucose concentrations in eight intensively-treated diabetic subjects (Group 1) than in ten conventionally-treated (Group 2) or in eight non-diabetic subjects (Group 3). For example, for adrenaline, plasma glucose thresholds were 2.7 +/- 0.2 vs 3.4 +/- 0.2 and 3.2 +/- 0.1 mmol/l, respectively, p < 0.05, Group 1 vs Groups 2 or 3 and for subjective awareness of hypoglycaemia 2.3 +/- 0.2 vs 3.0 +/- 0.1 and 3.2 +/- 0.1 mmol/l, p < or = 0.003), as in previous studies. In contrast, deterioration in reaction time occurred at 3.2 +/- 0.3, 3.2 +/- 0.2 and 3.0 +/- 0.2 mmol/l, respectively (p = NS), thus occurring at higher glucose levels than subjective awareness in the intensively-treated subjects only. The altered hierarchy of responses to hypoglycaemia in well-controlled intensively-treated diabetes explains the increased risk of severe hypoglycaemia without warning seen in such patients.