We have described a thyroid hormone receptor in synaptosomes of the chick embryo brain. To understand how the hormones exert their actions at this level, we performed a series of studies to demonstrate that this receptor could be linked to G proteins. Guanosine 5'-[gamma-thio]triphosphate (GTP gamma S)(100 muM) lowered the binding capacity of the receptor high affinity site from 8.9 +/- 1.3 to 3.4 +/- 1.3 ng T3/mg protein, a finding consistent with the coupling of receptor to G proteins. Furthermore, ADP ribosylation with pertussis toxin showed that thyroid hormones induced a dose-dependent increase in the inactive alpha 0-subunit of the G0 protein. This effect was detected at 10 pM, with a maximal increase (mean +/- SEM, 50 +/- 3.6%) at 100 nM, and T4 was as effective as T3. Both hormones also decreased the intrinsic guanine triphosphatase activity of G proteins by lowering the binding of GTP to the alpha-subunit and their rate of hydrolysis. This inhibition was greater with T4 (25 +/- 5%) than with T3 (14 +/- 2%), suggesting that the former could be the more active hormone at the synaptosomal level. The effect on guanine triphosphatase activity confirms that the synaptosomal thyroid hormone receptor is coupled to a G(zero) protein. These results demonstrate that thyroid hormones increase or favor the ADP ribosylation of G alpha(zero) by pertussis toxin. Thus, they enhance the alpha(zero)-GDP form of the G(zero) protein, namely its inactive conformation. By decreasing the activity of this protein, these hormones may modulate the formation of second messengers in synaptosomes and intervene in the regulation of neuronal proliferation and differentiation induced by several factors. Therefore, thyroid hormones may exert their action on brain maturation at least in part by modulating G alpha(zero) through their synaptosomal receptor.