The fetal pituitary gland secretes beta-endorphin in blood in response to delivery. However, other forms of endorphin have recently been observed in the fetal pituitary, such as N-acetyl-beta-endorphin, which is devoid of opiate activity, and a desacetylated form of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Both endorphins originate in the pituitary intermediate lobe. The sensitivity of this lobe to labor stress was assessed by the evaluation of beta-endorphin, N-acetyl-beta-endorphin, melanocyte-stimulating hormone, and desacetylated alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone in maternal plasma and cord blood in 11 cases of vaginal delivery and 10 cases of elective cesarean section without labor. Plasma peptide levels were determined by specific radioimmunoassays after extraction on Sep-Pak C-18 cartridges and high-performance liquid chromatography fractionation. Cord blood samples of infants delivered vaginally showed higher beta-endorphin (8.5 +/- 1.6 pmol/L, mean +/- SE) and desacetylated alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (13.6 +/- 3.2 pmol/L) levels than those delivered by elective cesarean section (3.7 +/- 0.8 and 4.2 +/- 1.1 pmol/L, for beta-endorphin and desacetylated alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone, respectively). N-acetyl-beta-endorphin and alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone levels do not differ in relation to the mode of delivery. In maternal circulation beta-endorphin levels were higher in those delivered vaginally (5.2 pm 1) than in women who had cesarean sections (2.5 +/- 0.5 pmol/L), whereas no changes were found for the other peptides. In vaginal deliveries, the level of desacetylated alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone was higher in cord blood (13.6 +/- 3.2 pmol/L) than in maternal plasma (6.5 +/- 3 pmol/L); there were no significant differences with regard to the other peptides. Fetal and maternal levels of all the peptides were similar in cases of cesarean section. We conclude that parturition activates proopiomelanocortin peptide release from both the anterior and the intermediate pituitary lobe and that the fetus secretes the appropriate beta-endorphin molecule, that is, the peptide able to bind opiate receptors. Concomitant secretion of desacetylated alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone may occur with adrenal androgen activation at birth.