Pulsatile release of GH was compared in young (4-5 months old) and old (18-20 months old) male Sprague-Dawley rats using indwelling atrial cannulae. More than 57% of the young rats exhibited GH pulses greater than 300 ng/ml plasma, whereas only 7% of the old animals had GH pulses of similar amplitude. Trough GH values were not different between young and old rats, but during the 10.5-h sampling period, mean GH concentrations in young male rats were significantly greater than those in old male rats (175.3 +/- 20.9 vs. 70.2 +/- 7.6 ng/ml; P < 0.01). In another experiment, pituitary GH and hypothalamic somatostatin content were measured in young and old rats. The pituitary GH content was significantly greater in young than in old males (1187 +/- 95 vs. 670 +/- 93 microgram; P < 0.01). The immunoreactive somatostatin content in caudal areas of the hypothalamus was also greater in young than in old male rats (100.2 +/- 4.2 vs. 79.0 +/- 5.1 ng; P < 0.01). These observations demonstrate that GH secretion is depressed in old male rats, and this is associated with diminished pulsatile release of GH. The results also suggest that a relationship exists among the reduction in somatostatin content, pituitary GH content, and attenuated GH secretion in old male rats.