Neurotoxic effects of prenatal administration of dexamethasone were examined in the fetal rhesus monkey brain at 135 and 162 days of gestation (term is 165 days). In an experimental design mimicking human clinical trials, dexamethasone was given intramuscularly to pregnant monkeys on day 132 (single injection with doses of 0.5, 5, or 10 mg/kg maternal body weight) or on days 132 and 133 (multiple injections at 12-h intervals with 0.125 x 4, 1.25 x 4, or 2.5 mg/kg x 4). The fetuses were delivered by caesarean section on day 135 or day 162 and hippocampal slices were prepared for evaluation. Light and electron microscopic observation revealed decreased numbers of pyramidal neurons in the hippocampal CA regions and of granular neurons in the dentate gyrus associated with degeneration of neuronal perikarya and dendrites. Axodendritic synaptic terminals of the mossy fibers in the CA3 hippocampal region showed pronounced degeneration. Degeneration was dose-dependent and multiple injections induced more severe damage than single injections of the same total dose. Even the lowest dose (0.5 mg/kg, which is similar to the dose used in human clinical trials) produced these changes. Degenerative changes induced by dexamethasone treatment (5 mg/kg) on days 132 and 133 were also clearly evident in fetuses studied at 162 days. Therefore, caution is recommended in the use of prenatal corticosteroids in premature deliveries.