We investigated whether a polymorphism at nucleotide position 1220, resulting in an asparagine-to-serine change at codon 363 in the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene is associated with an altered sensitivity to glucocorticoids. In a group of 216 elderly persons, 13 heterozygotes for the N363S polymorphism were identified by PCR/single strand conformation polymorphism analysis. In 2 dexamethasone (DEX) suppression tests (DSTs), using 1 and 0.25 mg DEX, the circulating cortisol and insulin concentrations were compared between N363S carriers and controls. In the 1-mg DST, there were no differences between N363S carriers and controls, with respect to adrenal suppression, but there was a significantly higher (P < 0.05) insulin response in N363S carriers. In the 0.25-mg DST, a significantly larger (P < 0.05) cortisol suppression and higher (P < 0.05) insulin response were seen in N363S carriers. Comparison of blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and bone mineral density (BMD) between the N363S carriers and controls showed that N363S carriers had a higher (P < 0.05) BMI but normal blood pressure. There was an obvious trend towards lower age-, BMI-, and sex-adjusted BMD in the lumbar spine in N363S carriers. GR characteristics measured in 41 controls and 9 N363S carriers in peripheral mononuclear leucocytes showed no differences between N363S carriers and controls, with respect to GR number and ligand binding affinity. However, there was a trend towards greater sensitivity to DEX in the carriers' lymphocytes, in a mitogen-induced cell proliferation assay. In transfection assays, the capacity of the codon 363 variant to activate mouse mammary tumor virus promotor-mediated transcription in COS-1 cells was unaltered, when compared with the wild-type GR. We conclude that in 6.0% of our study population, a polymorphism in codon 363 of the GR gene was found. Individuals carrying this polymorphism seemed healthy at clinical examination but had a higher sensitivity to exogenously administered glucocorticoids, with respect to both cortisol suppression and insulin response. Life-long exposure to the mutated allele may be accompanied by an increased BMI and a lowered BMD in the lumbar spine but does not affect blood pressure.