We injected i.c.v. the natural agonist alpha-MSH (melanocyte-stimulating hormone) and the first selective melanocortin MC4 receptor antagonist HS014 (cyclic [AcCys11, D-Nal14, Cys18, Asp-NH(2)22]-beta-MSH(11-22) in rats and scored a number of behavioral effects which have been related to the melanocortic peptides. The results showed that HS014 (5 microg/rat) completely blocked alpha-MSH (3 and 5 microg/rat)-induced grooming, yawning and stretching. Penile erections induced by alpha-MSH were, however, only partially blocked by HS014. Injections of alpha-MSH decreased food intake in food-deprived rats, whereas HS014 increased food intake. When the peptides were given together, the food intake was similar to that of saline treated controls. Locomotion/exploration and resting were not influenced by either peptide. Our data show that exogenous beta-MSH decreases food intake, and that an endogenous central melanocortinergic inhibitory tone on feeding prevails which can be blocked with HS014, leading to an increase in food intake. Our data also provide evidence that grooming, stretching and yawning in rats may be mediated by the melanocortin MC4 receptor, whereas penile erections might perhaps be mediated by some other melanocortin receptor.