This study aimed to test the hypothesis that the tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic neurons of the arcuate nucleus and/or the lactotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland are key targets for the programming effects of perinatal glucocorticoids (GCs). Dexamethasone was administered noninvasively to fetal or neonatal rats via the mothers' drinking water (1 mug/ml) on embryonic d 16-19 or neonatal d 1-7, and control animals received normal drinking water. At 68 d of age, the numbers of tyrosine hydroxylase-positive (TH+) cells in the arcuate nucleus and morphometric parameters of pituitary lactotrophs were analyzed. In control animals, striking sex differences in TH+ cell numbers, lactotroph cell size, and pituitary prolactin content were observed. Both pre- and neonatal GC treatment regimens were without effect in adult male rats, but in females, the overriding effect was to abolish the sex differences by reducing arcuate TH+ cell numbers (pre- and neonatal treatments) and reducing lactotroph cell size and pituitary prolactin content (prenatal treatment only) without changing lactotroph cell numbers. Changes in circulating prolactin levels represented a net effect of hypothalamic and pituitary alterations that exhibited independent critical windows of susceptibility to perinatal GC treatments. The dopaminergic neurons of the hypothalamic periventricular nucleus and the pituitary somatotroph populations were not significantly affected by either treatment regimen in either sex. These data show that the adult female hypothalamo-lactotroph axis is profoundly affected by perinatal exposure to GCs, which disrupts the tonic inhibitory tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic pathway and changes lactotroph morphology and prolactin levels in the pituitary and circulation. These findings provide new evidence for a long-term disruption in prolactin-dependent homeostasis in females, but not males, after inappropriate GC exposure in perinatal life.