Impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) is associated with defects in both insulin secretion and action and carries a high risk for conversion to non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM). Troglitazone, an insulin sensitizing agent, reduces glucose concentrations in subjects with NIDDM and IGT but is not known to affect insulin secretion. We sought to determine the role of beta cell function in mediating improved glucose tolerance. Obese subjects with IGT received 12 wk of either 400 mg daily of troglitazone (n = 14) or placebo (n = 7) in a randomized, double-blind design. Study measures at baseline and after treatment were glucose and insulin responses to a 75-g oral glucose tolerance test, insulin sensitivity index (SI) assessed by a frequently sampled intravenous glucose tolerance test, insulin secretion rates during a graded glucose infusion, and beta cell glucose-sensing ability during an oscillatory glucose infusion. Troglitazone reduced integrated glucose and insulin responses to oral glucose by 10% (P = 0.03) and 39% (P = 0.003), respectively. SI increased from 1.3+/-0.3 to 2.6+/-0.4 x 10(-)5min-1pM-1 (P = 0.005). Average insulin secretion rates adjusted for SI over the glucose interval 5-11 mmol/liter were increased by 52% (P = 0.02), and the ability of the beta cell to entrain to an exogenous oscillatory glucose infusion, as evaluated by analysis of spectral power, was improved by 49% (P = 0.04). No significant changes in these parameters were demonstrated in the placebo group. In addition to increasing insulin sensitivity, we demonstrate that troglitazone improves the reduced beta cell response to glucose characteristic of subjects with IGT. This appears to be an important factor in the observed improvement in glucose tolerance.