After postnatal day 1 (d1), the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis of neonatal rats becomes less responsive to certain stimuli for up to 2 weeks. The present study was designed to quantify the development of adrenocortical cell responsiveness to its normal secretagogue, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and to better localize intracellular sites of adrenal cell hyporesponsivity. Maximum steroidogenic responses of collagenase-dispersed adrenocortical cells (using two isolation methods) to ACTH varied significantly in the order adult > d1 > d10. The response pattern to dibutyryl cAMP ((Bu)2cAMP) was identical to that observed for ACTH (adult > d1 > d10), suggesting that neonatal adrenal responsiveness is limited by a site distal to cAMP formation. Sensitivity (EC50) of adult cells to ACTH was approximately 3-fold greater than in neonatal cells, but there was no age-dependent shift in sensitivity to (Bu)2cAMP. 20 alpha-Hydroxycholesterol (20 alpha-OHCHOL), a membrane permeable analog of cholesterol, also failed to normalize the d10 adrenal response to ACTH. This result indicates that one site of refractoriness is apparently distal to cholesterol transport, and strongly suggests possible differential cytochrome P450 enzyme expression or activity in neonatal rat adrenal cells. Finally, although stimulated secretion was lower in neonatal cells, basal corticosterone secretion was significantly greater in neonatal adrenals, suggesting that constitutive activity of neonatal adrenal cells is high compared to that of adult cells.