Nitric oxide (NO), a highly reactive free radical, has been identified as a neurotransmitter in the central and peripheral nervous system. NO synthase (NOS) is the enzyme responsible for NO production from L-arginine and plays an important role in regulating the release of several hypothalamic peptides. In the pituitary, NO was found to increase growth hormone (GH) secretion in several in vitro and in vivomodels. However, its role in human GH regulation is unknown. The aim of this study was to investigate the regulatory effects of NO on human GH and prolactin secretion using primary cell cultures of human fetal pituitaries and cultured hormone-secreting adenomas. Incubation of the human fetal pituitaries (21-24 wk gestation) in the presence of sodium nitroprusside (SNP; 1 mM), a NO donor, for 4 h resulted in a 50-75% increase in GH secretion, similar to the stimulatory effect evoked by growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH) (10 nM). However, fetal PRL secretion was not affected by SNP. GH release was also stimulated (40-70% increase) by SNP in 60% of the cultured GH-secreting adenomas studied. SNP-induced GH release was inhibited in both fetal and adenomatous cells by PTI0, a NO scavenger. The addition of cGMP (0.1-1 mM), the second messenger of multiple NO actions, enhanced fetal and adenomatous GH secretion by 55-95%. Neuronal NOS (nNOS) was expressed in normal (fetal and adult) human pituitary tissues and in GH-secreting adenomas. Examination of its functional expression using L-arginine (1 microM) yielded a 35% increase in GH release from cultured GH-secreting adenoma. This response was blocked by a NOS inhibitor with high selectivity for the neuronal enzyme and by a guanylyl cyclase inhibitor. In conclusion, NO stimulates human GH in cultured fetal pituitaries and GH-secreting adenomas. Cyclic GMP is probably involved in this hormonal regulation.