Rats were treated with hydrocortisone, dexamethasone or triamcinolone for 4 days. The effect of treatment on hepatic lipase and lecithin:cholesterol acyltransferase (LCAT) mRNA levels and catalytic activities was determined. Hepatic lipase mRNA was not affected by hydrocortisone, but was decreased after dexamethasone (-28%) and triamcinolone (-54%). Hepatic lipase activity followed the same pattern, it was not affected by hydrocortisone and lowered by dexamethasone (-38%) and triamcinolone (-70%). The LCAT mRNA level in the liver was also not affected by hydrocortisone, but increased upon treatment with dexamethasone (+22%) and triamcinolone (+72%). Plasma LCAT, determined with an excess exogenous substrate (designated LCAT-II), tended to decrease after hydrocortisone treatment (-11%) and was higher after dexamethasone (+21%) and triamcinolone (+22%). The plasma cholesterol esterification rate (designated LCAT-I), determined by incubation of the plasma at 37 degrees C, followed the same pattern. The activity ratio of hepatic lipase/LCAT-II decreased from 1 in the controls to 0.51 after dexamethasone and 0.25 in the triamcinolone-treated animals. The plasma HDL cholesterol concentration in the different groups changed oppositely to the hepatic lipase/LCAT activity ratio. It is concluded that HDL cholesterol is raised by synthetic glucocorticoids due, among other factors, to a lowered hepatic lipase and an increased plasma LCAT activity. The influence of glucocorticoids on these enzymes is, at least partly, explained by the effects on the hepatic mRNA contents.