Melatonin is a powerful scavenger of oxygen free radicals. In humans, melatonin is rapidly transferred from the maternal to the fetal circulation. To investigate whether or not maternal melatonin administration can protect the fetal rat brain from radical-induced damage by increasing the activities of antioxidant enzymes, we administered melatonin to pregnant rats on day 20 of gestation. Melatonin (10 mg/kg) was injected intraperitoneally at daytime (14:00 hr) and, to remove the fetuses, a laparotomy was performed at 1, 2, or 3 hr after its administration. We measured the melatonin concentration in the maternal serum and in fetal brain homogenates and determined the activities of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) in fetal brain homogenates. Melatonin administration markedly increased melatonin concentrations in the maternal serum and fetal brain homogenates, with peak levels achieved 1 hr after melatonin administration (serum: 538.2+/-160.7 pM/mL; brain homogenates: 13.8+/-2.8 pM/mg protein). Between 1 and 3 hr after melatonin administration, GSH-Px activity in fetal brain homogenates increased significantly (P<0.01). Similarly, SOD activity increased significantly between 1 and 2 hr after melatonin administration (P<0.01). These results indicate that melatonin administration to the mother increases antioxidant enzyme activities in the fetal brain and may thereby provide indirect protection against free radical injury. Thus, melatonin may potentially be useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative conditions that may involve excessive free radical production, such as fetal hypoxia and preeclampsia.