Aging is characterized by a decreased secretion of thyroid hormones in rats associated with unchanged plasma TSH suggestive of impairments in the hypothalamo-pituitary-thyroid axis. Since it is known that pituitary T3 is more determinant on TSH secretion than plasma T3, we measured in young (4 months) and old (26 months) male rats the concentration of T3 in the anterior pituitary gland and found that it was similar in young and old animals despite the low circulating levels of thyroid hormones. This was suggestive of age-related differences in the intrapituitary T4 to T3 conversion. We therefore determined the activity of 5'-deiodinase (5'-D, type I and type II) in the adenohypophysis and investigated possible age-related changes in this enzyme activity in peripheral tissues by its determination in the thyroid gland and liver (type I) of young and old rats. Intrapituitary 5'-D activity was increased in old compared to young rats (type I 5'-D: 4.59 +/- 0.13 vs. 2.92 +/- 0.33 pmol rT3/h x mg protein; type II: 0.54 +/- 0.5 vs. 0.21 +/- 0.03 pmol rT3/h x mg protein; P less than 0.001). In contrast, in the thyroid gland and in the liver, type I 5'-D was reduced with age (4.7 +/- 0.6 vs. 7.4 +/- 0.8 and 3.1 +/- 0.4 vs. 5.6 +/- 0.5 nmol rT3/h x mg protein, respectively; P less than 0.01). These data are illustrative of age-related changes in the activity of 5'-D, different according to the tissues in agreement with the known tissue-specific regulation of the 5'-Ds. The reduced activity of 5'-D in the thyroid and liver of old rats is indicative of an impaired thyroid hormones disposal in peripheral tissues with age. In contrast, in the adenohypophysis of old rats, the increase in the activity of 5'-D is similar to that reported in hypothyroid animals and suggests the development with age of an adaptative mechanism in the presence of low circulating thyroid hormones; this mechanism leads to unchanged intrapituitary concentration of T3 and consequently to unaltered plasma levels of TSH in old rats.