A fraction from normal human plasma inhibiting Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase has been recently identified as lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC). The aim of this study was to investigate the existence of a relationship between the activity of the cellular membrane Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase and plasma LPC in human diabetes. We studied 10 patients with insulin-dependent-diabetes mellitus (IDDM), 14 patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), and 10 sex- and age-matched control subjects. Plasma LPC concentrations were increased in both IDDM and NIDDM patients compared with control subjects. Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase activity was reduced in both groups of patients in erythrocyte and platelet membranes. There was a significant correlation between the concentrations of plasma LPC and Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase activity in both erythrocyte and platelet membranes (P < 0.01). To investigate the effect of LPC on the enzyme, Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase activity was determined in erythrocyte membranes obtained from six healthy subjects after in vitro incubation with increasing concentrations of LPC (1-10 microM). Enzymatic activity was significantly reduced by in vitro LPC at a concentration of 2.5 microM, with a further decrease at 5 microM. These data suggest that the decrease in Na(+)-K(+)-ATPase activity in diabetes might be due to increased LPC concentrations.