During hemorrhagic shock there is a massive overproduction of nitric oxide (NO). In such conditions, the intravenous (i.v.) injection of melanocortin peptides in nanomolar amounts produces a long-lasting restoration of cardiovascular and respiratory functions associated with the normalization of NO blood levels. To clarify the mechanism of such melanocortin-induced inhibition of NO overproduction, the influence of the adrenocorticotropin fragment 1-24 [ACTH-(1-24)] on the NO synthesizing activity of rat macrophages was studied in vitro. Nitrite production, an indicator of NO synthesis, was measured in the supernatant of rat macrophages whose inducible NO synthase (NOS II, iNOS) had been stimulated by the addition of S. enteritidis lipopolysaccharide (LPS, 50 microg/ml). ACTH-(1-24) (25, 50 and 100 nM) inhibited nitrite production when incubated together with LPS, but had no effect when applied 6 h after LPS. Further, the effect of ACTH-(1-24) on the expression of iNOS mRNA in rat macrophages activated with LPS was studied by means of a reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction assay. ACTH-(1-24) (25, 50 and 100 nM), applied together with LPS, dose-dependently suppressed iNOS gene activation. The present data suggest that the melanocortin-induced normalization of NO blood levels during hemorrhagic shock is due, at least in part, to a direct inhibition of iNOS induction, at the level of mRNA transcription.