The effect of cortisol or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) on basal and gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)-induced secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) was studied in vitro using dispersed pig pituitary cells. Pig pituitary cells were dispersed with collagenase and DNAase and then grown in McCoy's 5a medium containing 10% dextran charcoal-pretreated horse serum and 2.5% fetal calf serum for 3 days. Cells were preincubated with cortisol or ACTH before GnRH was added. When pituitary cells were incubated with 400 micrograms cortisol/ml medium for 6 h or longer, increase basal secretion of LH was observed. However, GnRH-induced LH release was reduced by cortisol. The degree of this reduction was dependent on cortisol, and a concentration of cortisol higher than 100 micrograms/ml was needed. Cortisol also inhibited the 17 beta-estradiol-induced increase in GnRH response. ACTH-(1-24), ACTH-(1-39), or porcine ACTH had no influence on GnRH-induced LH secretion. Our results show that cortisol can act directly on pig pituitary to inhibit both normal and estradiol-sensitized LH responsiveness to GnRH.