We recently reported that dexamethasone (DEX) enhances acetylcholine (ACh) release from pituitary cell aggregates. In the present study, the effect of DEX on the GH-releasing properties of the cholinergic agonist carbachol (CCh) was investigated. Perifusion of hemipituitaries from 14-day-old rats with CCh stimulated basal GH release. CCh also increased basal GH release from organ-cultured pituitaries and from pituitary cells cultured as reaggregates, but only when the thyroid hormone T3 was supplemented to the culture medium. Pretreatment of the animals in vivo with DEX abolished the CCh-induced increase in basal GH release from hemipituitaries tested in vitro. Treatment of pituitary organ cultures and reaggregate cell cultures with DEX reversed the stimulation of basal GH release by CCh into an inhibition. CCh also inhibited isoproterenol- and GRF-stimulated GH release from DEX-treated pituitary cell reaggregates. In contrast, the responsiveness of tumoral GH3 cell aggregates to CCh was not dependent on T3 or DEX during culture. The half-maximal concentration of CCh for inhibition was significantly lower than that for stimulation (1 and 10 microM, respectively). Perifusion with CCh of DEX-treated cell reaggregates consisting of a highly enriched somatotroph population (greater than 90% GH immunoreactive cells), obtained by sequential velocity and buoyant density sedimentation of dispersed cells, also inhibited basal GH release. Pretreatment of pituitary cell reaggregates cultured in DEX-supplemented medium with pertussis toxin completely abolished the inhibition by CCh. The inhibition of GH release by CCh was not affected by the Na+ conductance blocker tetrodotoxin, the Cl- channel blocker picrotoxin, or the K+ channel blocker caesium, but was abolished by the Ca2+ channel blockers cadmium and verapamil. In conclusion, CCh is capable of both stimulating and inhibiting GH release in different pituitary in vitro assay systems; the inhibition is dependent on glucocorticoids and the stimulation on the thyroid hormone T3. The mechanism of action of the inhibition seems to involve a GTP-binding protein and most probably a decrease in calcium conductance in the somatotroph.