Plasma concentrations of neuropeptide Y (NPY) were measured in pregnant ewes and their fetuses under basal conditions and in response to acute hypoxemia during late gestation. The effects of fetal treatment with dexamethasone on these NPY responses were also examined. Under general anesthesia, 10 Welsh Mountain ewes and their fetuses were chronically instrumented between 117-120 days gestation (dGA; term is approximately 145 dGA) with vascular and amniotic catheters, and an ultrasonic probe around a femoral artery of each fetus. At 124 dGA, five fetuses were continuously infused i.v. with dexamethasone for 48 h at a rate of 1.73 +/- 0.16 microg x kg(-1) x h(-1) while the remaining five fetuses received vehicle at the same rate. At 126 dGA, 45 h from the onset of either infusion, 1 h of materno-fetal hypoxemia was induced by reducing maternal FiO2. During normoxia, maternal plasma NPY concentrations were three times those measured in fetal plasma in both groups. During hypoxemia, PaO2 fell to similar levels in the control and dexamethasone-treated groups in both mothers and fetuses. In control animals, there was a significant increase in the NPY concentration in fetal, but not maternal, plasma during hypoxemia. Fetal treatment with dexamethasone significantly enhanced the fetal NPY response to acute hypoxemia but had no effects on basal NPY levels in the fetal or maternal plasma or on the maternal response to acute hypoxemia. These data show: 1) differences between the maternal and fetal plasma NPY response to maternal inhalation hypoxia; 2) that NPY may play a role in mediating fetal defense responses to acute hypoxemia; and 3) that fetal exposure to glucocorticoids modifies the fetal plasma NPY response to acute hypoxemia.