Although prior studies have suggested that estrogens exert their negative feedback effect at the pituitary level in men, these conclusions have been based on models that evaluate changes in LH pulse amplitude and frequency and, therefore, only provide indirect information concerning the site of action of estrogens. To assess whether estradiol (E2) inhibits gonadotropin secretion directly and solely at the pituitary level in men, we determined the pituitary responses to physiological doses of GnRH in six men with complete GnRH deficiency, whose pituitary-gonadal function had been normalized with long term pulsatile GnRH delivery, before and during a 4-day continuous E2 infusion (90 micrograms/day). To deduce whether E2 has an additional inhibitory effect on hypothalamic GnRH secretion, their responses were compared with the effects of identical E2 infusions on spontaneous gonadotropin secretion and the responses to a 100-micrograms GnRH bolus in six normal men. Both groups were monitored with 15 h of frequent blood sampling before and during the last day of the E2 infusion. In the GnRH-deficient men, the first three GnRH doses were identical and chosen to produce LH pulses with amplitudes in the midphysiological range of values in our normal men (i.e. a physiological dose), while the last four doses spanned 1.5 log orders (7.5, 25, 75, and 250 ng/kg). The 250-ng/kg dose was always administered last because it is known to be pharmacological. In the GnRH-deficient men, mean LH and FSH levels as well as LH pulse amplitude all decreased significantly (P less than 0.02) during E2 infusion, demonstrating a direct pituitary-suppressive effect of E2. Mean LH (P less than 0.01) and FSH (P less than 0.05) levels and LH pulse amplitude (P less than 0.01) also decreased significantly in the normal men. The degree of suppression of mean LH (52 +/- 3% vs. 42 +/- 12%) and FSH (49 +/- 10% vs. 37 +/- 10%) levels was similar in the two groups. These results provide direct evidence that E2 inhibits gonadotropin secretion at the pituitary level in men and suggest that the pituitary is the most important, and possibly the sole, site of negative feedback of estrogens in men.