Disproportionate hyperproinsulinaemia is a manifestation of the beta-cell dysfunction observed in NIDDM. However, it is unclear when this abnormality develops and whether it predicts the development of the disease. To examine whether changes in proinsulin levels predict the development of NIDDM, baseline measurements of proinsulin and immunoreactive insulin levels were made in 87 second-generation Japanese-American men, a population at high risk for the subsequent development of NIDDM. Subjects were categorized at baseline using WHO criteria as having normal glucose tolerance (NGT; n = 49) or impaired glucose tolerance (IGT; n = 38). After a 5-year follow-up period, subjects were recategorized as having NGT, IGT or NIDDM using the same criteria. During follow-up, 16 subjects developed NIDDM while 71 were NGT or IGT. At baseline, individuals who subsequently developed NIDDM were more obese as measured by intra-abdominal fat area on computed tomography (p = 0.046), had higher fasting glucose (p = 0.0042), 2-h glucose (p = 0.0002), fasting C-peptide (p = 0.0011), fasting proinsulin levels (p = 0.0033), and had disproportionate hyperproinsulinaemia (p = 0.056) when compared to those who remained NGT or IGT after 5 years of follow-up. These findings suggest that alterations in proinsulin levels may also predict the subsequent development of NIDDM.