1. Experimental elevation of plasma non-esterified fatty acid concentrations has been postulated to decrease insulin-stimulated glucose oxidation and storage rates. Possible mechanisms were examined by measuring skeletal muscle glycogen synthase activity and muscle glycogen content before and during hyperinsulinaemia while fasting plasma non-esterified fatty acid levels were maintained.

2. Fasting plasma non-esterified fatty acid levels were maintained in seven healthy male subjects by infusion of 20% (w/v) Intralipid (1 ml/min) for 120 min before and during a 240 min hyperinsulinaemic euglycaemic clamp (100 m-units h−1 kg−1) combined with indirect calorimetry. On the control day, 0.154 mol/l NaCl was infused. Vastus lateralis muscle biopsy was performed before and at the end of the insulin infusion.

3. On the Intralipid study day serum triacylglycerol (2.24 ± 0.20 versus 0.67 ± 0.10 mmol/l), plasma non-esterified fatty acid (395 ± 13 versus 51 ± 1 μmol/l), blood glycerol (152 ± 2 versus 11 ± 1 μmol/l) and blood 3-hydroxybutyrate clamp levels [mean (95% confidence interval)] [81 (64–104) versus 4 (3–5) μmol/l] were all significantly higher (all P < 0.001) than on the control study day. Lipid oxidation rates were also elevated (1.07 ± 0.07 versus 0.27 ± 0.08 mg min−1 kg−1, P < 0.001). During the clamp with Intralipid infusion, insulin-stimulated whole-body glucose disposal decreased by 28% (from 8.53 ± 0.77 to 6.17 ± 0.71 mg min−1 kg−1, P < 0.005). This was the result of a 48% decrease in glucose oxidation (3.77 ± 0.32 to 1.95 ± 0.21 mg min−1 kg−1, P<0.001), with no significant change in nonoxidative glucose disposal (4.76 ± 0.49 to 4.22 ± 0.57 mg min−1 kg−1, not significant).

4. Basal and insulin-stimulated glycogen synthase activities (13.1 ± 1.9 versus 11.4 ± 2.3% and 30.8 ± 2.3 versus 27.6 ± 4.5%, respectively) were unaffected by the increased plasma non-esterified fatty acid levels. Similarly, basal (36.1 ± 2.7 versus 37.2 ± 1.4 μmol/g) and stimulated (40.0 ± 0.6 versus 37.6 ± 4.4 μmol/g) muscle glycogen levels were unaltered. Insulin-stimulated hexokinase activity was also not affected (0.52 ± 0.08 versus 0.60 ± 0.08 units/g wet weight).

5. Maintenance of plasma non-esterified fatty acid levels at fasting values resulted in an increase in lipid oxidation and was associated with a decrease in insulin-stimulated whole-body glucose uptake and glucose oxidation rates, but no change in non-oxidative glucose disposal. Increased plasma non-esterified fatty acid levels did not appear to have a direct inhibitory effect on glycogen synthase activity or storage of glucose as glycogen at these insulin levels.

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