The pharmacokinetic characteristics of RU486 and its acute effects on anterior pituitary hormone secretion after oral administration were examined in six normal women. Serum RU486 concentrations were determined by a radioimmunoassay. The absorption of RU486 was rapid with peak serum levels reached approximately 90 minutes after a single oral dose (4 mg/kg). The disappearance of RU486 and its metabolites conformed to a noncompartmental model with a mean apparent half-life of 53.7 +/- 6.9 hours. The mean apparent volume of distribution and clearance rate were 1.47 +/- 0.25 l/kg and 1.04 +/- 0.09 1/hour, respectively. In comparison with a control group of normal women (n = 9), there were significant elevations in transverse mean cortisol levels in the RU486 group (P less than 0.01). However, mean adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels and the diurnal pattern of ACTH and cortisol secretion were not changed. RU486 induced a mild prolactin (PRL) elevation (P less than 0.01), whereas thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) levels were not altered. In view of the relatively slow clearance rate for RU486 and its metabolites, our findings suggest that the pharmacologic action of RU486 is prolonged after a single oral dose.