Recent reports have shown that low birth weight infants have a higher incidence of adult hypertension. These observations have stimulated a number of studies designed to evaluate the mechanisms of this phenomenon. In this study, fetal growth retardation was induced by treating pregnant rats with dexamethasone. After birth, pups whose mothers were treated with dexamethasone had a lower body and kidney weight and a lower number of glomeruli than control pups. Immunohistochemistry on treated kidneys demonstrated a marked reduction in the number of cells undergoing mitosis in the cortical nephrogenic zone. In the treated group, body and kidney weight normalized by 60 d of age, but blood pressure was significantly higher compared with controls (130+/-4 versus 107+/-1 mm Hg). In addition, GFR was significantly lower, albuminuria was higher, urinary sodium excretion rate and fractional sodium excretion were lower, and sodium tissue content was higher. In contrast, when pregnant rats were treated with a natural glucocorticoid (hydrocortisone) which is metabolized by the placenta, fetal development and adult blood pressure were normal. In conclusion, we found that high levels of maternal glucocorticoids impair renal development and lead to arterial hypertension in offspring. Even though renal mass eventually normalizes, glomerular damage as well as sodium retention occur and these factors may contribute to the development of hypertension.