Autologous regulation of steroid receptors by their cognate ligands has been demonstrated for a number of nuclear receptor family members. To determine the molecular mechanism for glucocorticoid receptor (GR) autoregulation, the expression of glucocorticoid receptor mRNA and protein levels were examined in the mouse AtT-20 pituitary tumor cell line. The expression of c-jun and c-fos mRNA and protein was also examined in the same cell extracts. A rapid down-regulation of the GR protein was observed after treatment with the glucocorticoid analog, triamcinolone acetonide (TA). An oscillatory, parallel regulation of both GR and c-jun mRNA levels occurred. In contrast, POMC mRNA levels remained at a stable, low level during chronic TA treatment. Dose-response analyses also revealed a coordinate down-regulation of GR and c-jun (but not POMC or c-fos) mRNA levels. FOS protein levels were unaffected by TA treatment. Surprisingly, JUN protein levels were increased by TA, even when the c-jun mRNA levels were decreasing. Perhaps a derepression of c-jun mRNA translation occurs after TA treatment, and this may be due to GR/JUN heteromer formation interfering with JUN repression of c-jun mRNA translation. The effect of TA on GR and c-jun gene expression was a primary effect, as it occurred rapidly and was not inhibited by cycloheximide (CHX). Nuclear run-on transcription assays revealed a rapid (15 min) down-regulation in both GR and c-jun gene transcription rates, while POMC gene transcription was unaffected at this early time. Treatment of AtT-20 cells with all-trans retinoic acid gave different kinetics for GR and c-jun mRNA regulation than obtained with TA; however, the GR and c-jun mRNA levels were still coordinately regulated after retinoic acid treatment. Based upon these data, the promoter structures of the GR and c-jun genes, and previously published results, a novel mechanism for the coupled regulation of GR and c-jun transcription, via a direct transcriptional interference with AP-1 (FOS/JUN) activity, is proposed.