This study was carried out to analyse glucocorticoid-induced muscle wasting and subsequent recovery in adult (6-8 months) and old (18-24 months) rats because the increased incidence of various disease states results in hypersecretion of glucocorticoids in ageing. Adult and old rats received dexamethasone in their drinking water for 5 or 6 d and were then allowed to recover for 3 or 7 d. As dexamethasone decreased food intake, all groups were pair-fed to dexamethasonetreated old rats (i.e. the group that had the lowest food intake). At the end of the treatment, adult and old rats showed significant increases in blood glucose and plasma insulin concentrations. This increase disappeared during the recovery period. Protein synthesis of different muscles was assessed in vivo by a flooding dose of [13C]valine injected subcutaneously 50 min before slaughter. Dexamethasone induced a significant decrease in protein synthesis in fast-twitch glycolytic and oxidative glycolytic muscles (gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus). The treatment affected mostly ribosomal efficiency. Adult dexamethasone-treated rats showed an increase in protein synthesis compared with their pair-fed controls during the recovery period whereas old rats did not. Dexamethasone also significantly decreased protein synthesis in the predominantly oxidative soleus muscle but only in old rats, and increased protein synthesis in the heart of adult but not of old rats. Thus, in skeletal muscle, the catabolic effect of dexamethasone is maintained or amplified during ageing whereas the anabolic effect in heart is depressed. These results are consistent with muscle atrophy occurring with ageing.