We have previously demonstrated that a single dose of the GnRH agonist nafarelin stimulates both gonadotropin and sex steroid secretion in adult men and women. In order to define the maturational steps involved in this response, we tested the effect of nafarelin on LH, FSH, testosterone (T), and estradiol (E2) secretion over 24 h in four groups of males: prepubertal (P1; n = 4), early pubertal (P2; n = 8), and midpubertal boys (P3; n = 4) with variations in the timing of puberty, and normal young adult males (P4; n = 10). Nafarelin stimulated rapid gonadotropin release in all groups, but the pattern of LH response varied. In prepubertal and pubertal boys, LH levels peaked 3-4 h after nafarelin and declined by 50% or more at 24 h post nafarelin. By contrast, adults reached an initial LH peak at 1 h, and LH secretion was sustained with levels 24 h post nafarelin equivalent to those during the early response phase. Nafarelin stimulated T secretion in all groups, but the response was greatest in groups P3 and P4; the maximal incremental rise (delta) in T was 1.2 +/- 0.5, 4.4 +/- 1.0, 18.8 +/- 5.4, and 15.3 +/- 1.4 nmol/L in P1, P2, P3, and P4 males, respectively (analysis of variance: F = 14.4, P < 0.001). E2 concentrations increased much more in adults than in the other groups post nafarelin: delta E2 was 5.5 +/- 1.1, 22.1 +/- 14.7, 83.9 +/- 47.5, and 323.8 +/- 14.7 pmol/L in the P1, P2, P3, and P4 groups, respectively (F = 71.1, P < 0.001). Similarly, the delta E2/delta T ratio was significantly greater in adult males than in less mature males. This developmental pattern of response to nafarelin suggests that male pubertal maturation involves increase of the gonadotrope LH readily releasable and reserve pools. The dissociation of E2 from T responses to nafarelin during puberty suggests that aromatase activity does not fully mature in males until puberty is complete. These findings indicate that a single dose of the GnRH agonist nafarelin is a promising means of assessing the maturation of the pituitary-gonadal axis in males.