We investigated the oxidative susceptibility of the brain and the effect of maternally administered melatonin on ischemia/reperfusion-induced cerebral damage in premature fetal rat. Fetal brain mitochondria was separated on the 16th and 19th days of pregnant rats and the respiratory control index (RCI) was measured as an indicator of mitochondrial respiratory activity in the presence or absence of xanthine and xanthine oxidase. The utero-ovarian arteries were occluded bilaterally for 20 min in female rats on day 16 of pregnancy to induce fetal ischemia. Reperfusion was achieved by releasing the occlusion and restoring circulation for 30 min. A sham operation was performed in control rats. Melatonin (10 mg/kg) or vehicle was injected intraperitoneally into the dams 60 min prior to occlusion. The RCI and concentration of thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances (TBARS) in fetal brain mitochondria were measured. The addition of xanthine and xanthine oxidase significantly decreased mitochondrial RCI at both the 16- and 19-day-old fetal brain. Xanthine and xanthine oxidase-induced reduction in RCI was significantly greater in the 16-day-old fetal brain than that in the fetal brain from the 19th day of pregnancy. Ischemia/reperfusion significantly reduced RCI and elevated TBARS concentrations in the 16-day-old fetal brain mitochondria. Melatonin treatment reversed ischemia/reperfusion-induced reduction in RCI (2.22 +/- 0.10 to 2.53 +/- 0.08, P < 0.01) and elevation in TBARS concentrations (13.50 +/- 1.82 nmol/mg protein to 8.80 +/- 0.78 nmol/mg protein, P < 0.01), resulting in values similar to those in untreated, sham-treated animals. Results indicate that brain mitochondria in the premature fetal rats appear to be more susceptible to oxidative damage. Melatonin administration to pregnant rats may prevent ischemia/reperfusion-induced oxidative mitochondrial damage in premature fetal brain.