Desensitization of pituitary gonadotropes by exposure to 10 nM gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) for 6 h severely impaired the luteinizing hormone (LH) response to a second 3-h treatment with GnRH, and reduced the secretory responses to 50 microM arachidonic acid (AA), 100 nM tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA), and AA + TPA. Pretreatment with AA blocked subsequent responses to AA but not to other secretagogues. Pretreatment with TPA attenuated the LH response to TPA, but not to GnRH, AA, and AA + TPA. After exposure to AA + TPA, all subsequent responses were abolished. Each of the secretagogues reduced GnRH receptor binding, but only GnRH-induced receptor loss and desensitization were reversed by simultaneous incubation with a GnRH antagonist. Similar results were obtained when 16-h pretreatment periods were used, or when the data were normalized for the concomitant reduction of cellular LH content. These findings indicate that GnRH-receptor loss and depletion of LH content are not the sole causes of GnRH-induced desensitization. Receptor uncoupling and impairment of AA- and protein kinase C-dependent pathways may also be involved in this process.