1. The metabolism of Zaleplon (CL-284,846; ZAL) has been studied in precision-cut human liver slices and liver cytosol preparations. 2. Human liver slices metabolized ZAL to a number of products including 5-oxo-ZAL (M2), N-desethyl-5-oxo-ZAL (M1) and N-desethyl-ZAL (DZAL), the latter metabolite being known to be formed by CYP3A forms. 3. Human liver cytosol preparations catalysed the metabolism of ZAL to M2. Kinetic analysis of three cytosol preparations revealed mean (+/- SEM) K(m) and V(max) of 93 +/- 18 mm and 317 +/- 241 pmol/min/mg protein, respectively. 4. Using 16 individual human liver cytosol preparations a 33-fold variability in the metabolism of 80 micro M ZAL to M2 was observed. Correlations were observed between M2 formation and the metabolism of the aldehyde oxidase substrates phenanthridine (r(2) = 0.774) and phthalazine (r(2) = 0.460). 5. The metabolism of 80 micro M ZAL to M2 in liver cytosol preparations was markedly inhibited by the aldehyde oxidase inhibitors chlorpromazine, promethazine, hydralazine and menadione. Additional kinetic analysis suggested that chlorpromazine and promethazine were non-competitive inhibitors of M2 formation with K(i) of 2.3 and 1.9 micro M, respectively. ZAL metabolism to M2 was also inhibited by cimetidine. 6. Incubations conducted with human liver cytosol and H(2)(18)O demonstrated that the oxygen atom incorporated into ZAL and DZAL to form M2 and M1, respectively, was derived from water and not from molecular oxygen. 7. In summary, by correlation analysis, chemical inhibition and H(2)(18)O incorporation studies, ZAL metabolism to M2 in human liver appears to be catalysed by aldehyde oxidase. With human liver slices, ZAL was metabolized to products dependent on both aldehyde oxidase and CYP3A forms.