Insulin resistance versus insulin deficiency in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus: problems and prospects

Endocr Rev. 1998 Aug;19(4):477-90. doi: 10.1210/edrv.19.4.0336.


A definitive assessment of the relative roles of insulin resistance and insulin deficiency in the etiology of NIDDM is hampered by several problems. 1) Due to better methodology, data on insulin resistance are generally more accurate and consistent than data on insulin deficiency. 2) In source data, case-control studies are prone to selection bias, while epidemiological associations, whether cross-sectional or longitudinal, are liable to misinterpretation. 3) Insulin secretion and action are physiologically interconnected at multiple levels, so that an initial defect in either is likely to lead with time to a deficit in the companion function. The fact that both insulin resistance and impaired insulin release have been found to precede and predict NIDDM in prospective studies may be in part a reflection of just such relatedness. 4) Direct genetic analysis is effective in rarer forms of glucose intolerance (MODY, mitochondrial mutations, etc.) but encounters serious difficulties with typical late-onset NIDDM. Despite these uncertainties, the weight of current evidence supports the view that insulin resistance is very important in the etiology of typical NIDDM for the following reasons: 1) it is found in the majority of patients with the manifest disease; 2) it is only partially reversible by any form of treatment (117); 3) it can be traced back through earlier stages of IGT and high-risk conditions; and 4) it predicts subsequent development of the disease with remarkable consistency in both prediabetic and normoglycemic states. Of conceptual importance is also the fact that the key cellular mechanisms of skeletal muscle insulin resistance (defective stimulation of glucose transport, phosphorylation, and storage into glycogen) have been confirmed in NIDDM subjects by a variety of in vivo techniques [ranging from catheter balance (118) to multiple tracer kinetics (119) to 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (120)], and have been detected also in normoglycemic NIDDM offspring (121). If insulin resistance is a characteristic finding in many cases of NIDDM, insulin-sensitive NIDDM does exist. On the other hand, given the tight homeostatic control of plasma glucose levels in humans, beta-cell dysfunction, relative or absolute, is a sine qua non for the development of diabetes. If insulin deficiency must be present whereas insulin resistance may be present, is this proof that the former is etiologically primary to the latter? If so, do we have convincing evidence that the primacy of insulin deficiency is genetic in nature? The answer to both questions is negative on several accounts. The defect in insulin secretion in overt NIDDM is functionally severe but anatomically modest: beta-cell mass is reduced by 20-40% in patients with long-standing NIDDM (122). Moreover, the insulin secretory deficit is progressively worse with more severe hyperglycemia (123) and recovers considerably upon improving glycemic control (124). These observations indicate that part of the insulin deficiency is acquired (through glucose toxicity, lipotoxicity, or both). In addition, although insulin deficiency is necessary for diabetes, it may not always be sufficient to cause NIDDM. In fact, subtle defects in the beta-cell response to glucose may be widespread in the population (108, 125) and only cause frank hyperglycemia when obesity/insulin resistance stress the secretory machinery. Conceivably, there could be beta-cell dysfunction without NIDDM just as there is insulin resistance without diabetes. Incidentally, any defect in insulin secretion, whether in normoglycemic or hyperglycemic persons, could be due to other factors than primary beta-cell dysfunction: amyloid deposits in the pancreas (126), changes in insulin secretagogues (amylin, GLP-1, GIP, galanin) (127-130), early intrauterine malnutrition (131). Finally, the predictive power of early changes in insulin secretion for the development of typical NIDDM is generally lower than that of insulin

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Insulin / deficiency*
  • Insulin Resistance* / genetics


  • Insulin