As part of a blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled study of dexamethasone therapy in 27 preterm infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia, we investigated the effect of 7 days of high-dose glucocorticoid therapy on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Before therapy the median basal cortisol concentration in all infants was 8.2 micrograms/dl (226 nmol/L). After stimulation with 1-24 ACTH, the serum cortisol concentration rose in all infants to a median concentration of 23.5 micrograms/dl (649 nmol/L), resulting in a median rise of 13.4 micrograms/dl (37 nmol/L). Immediately after 7 days of glucocorticoid therapy basal and peak cortisol concentrations were significantly decreased in the dexamethasone group. The rise in serum cortisol following 1-24 ACTH, however, remained equivalent in both groups. Ten days after the end of therapy basal and peak cortisol concentrations in the dexamethasone group had returned to levels equivalent to those seen in the placebo group. Weight gain was markedly diminished while the infants were receiving dexamethasone. Weight gains were, however, equivalent 10 days after the end of treatment. These data indicate that 7 days of dexamethasone therapy has significant but short-term effects on cortisol secretion and possibly on weight gain.