OBJECTIVE: To explore the adaptive response of the endocrine pancreas in vivo and in vitro and the possible beneficial effect of the insulino-mimetic agent vanadyl sulfate (VOSO(4)), using glucocorticoid treatment to increase insulin resistance, in aging rats. DESIGN AND METHODS: Dexamethasone (Dex) (0.13 mg/kg b.w.) was administered daily for 13 days to 3- and 18-month old Sprague-Dawley rats and oral VOSO(4) was given from the 5th day. Plasma glucose, insulin and free fatty acids (FFA) concentrations were measured during these treatments and the insulin secretory response of the isolated perfused pancreas was assessed at the end of the experiment. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: In both young and aging rats, particularly in the latter, hyperinsulinemia and increased in vitro insulin responsiveness to glucose were observed in response to Dex treatment, concomitant with an increase in plasma FFA concentrations. Thus, in glucocorticoid-treated animals, the beta-cell adaptive response occurred in both age groups and could possibly be mediated by increased circulating FFA; however, it was insufficient to prevent hyperglycemia in 60% of aging animals. Oral VOSO(4) administration failed to correct Dex-induced alterations in glucose and lipid metabolism, although it influenced in vitro beta-cell responsiveness to stimuli in aging rats.