OBJECTIVE: Hyperthyroidism in rats produces organ hypertrophy and increases in circulating IGF-I and IGF-binding protein (IGFBP)-3. Chronic treatment with thyroxine (T(4)) during pregnancy advances parturition, blocks lactation and changes several hormone receptors in mammary gland and liver. Since IGFs are implicated in mammary and liver growth and in differentiation, we studied the effects of hyperthyroidism, induced by daily injections of T(4) (0.25 mg/kg). DESIGN AND METHODS: Using quantitative RT-PCR and in situ hybridization, the gene expression of IGF-I, IGF-II and the IGFBPs was determined in mammary gland and liver of rats at estrus and days 7, 14 and 21 of pregnancy (G7, G14, G21), day 1 postpartum (L1) and 3 days after removing the litter (L4). Circulating levels of IGF-I, tri-iodothyronine (T(3)), PRL and GH were measured. RESULTS: T(4) treatment (HT) increased circulating T(3) save on G21, did not change serum IGF-I, increased PRL on G21 and decreased GH on L1. PRL decreased on L1 because of the absence of lactation. Hepatic IGF-I mRNA was low during pregnancy and increased on L4. HT advanced this increase to L1. In controls, liver IGFBP-3 mRNA levels decreased from G14 to G21, whereas IGFBP-4 showed an inverse pattern. HT lowered IGFBP-3 mRNA and increased IGFBP-4. Increases in mammary concentrations of IGF-I, IGFBP-3 and IGFBP-4 mRNAs were seen on G21. HT delayed these peaks to L1. Mammary IGF-II and IGFBP-2 mRNA levels were high on G7 and G14, and fell afterwards, with HT having no effects. IGFBP-5 mRNA decreased during pregnancy and increased on L1. HT increased IGFBP-5 levels in early pregnancy and on L1. IGF-I mRNA localized to connective and epithelial mammary tissue, while IGFBP-2 and IGFBP-5 mRNA was only in epithelial cells. CONCLUSION: These results imply a role for IGF-I, IGFBP-3 and IGFBP-4 in terminal mammary development, while IGF-II and IGFBP-2 may be implicated in early growth. IGFBP-5 has been implicated in mammary apoptosis, and the HT-induced increase may play a role in the premature mammary involution of the HT rats.