OBJECTIVE: In the second trimester of pregnancy, inhibin A is significantly increased in maternal serum and decreased in amniotic fluid in Down's syndrome pregnancies compared to normal. We wished to further evaluate the levels of inhibin A, inhibin B, pro-αC inhibin, activin A and the binding protein follistatin in amniotic fluid in Down's syndrome and control pregnancies. DESIGN: Case-matched control study. PATIENTS: 29 Down's syndrome and 290 chromosomally normal control pregnancies were identified from records and amniotic fluid, collected at second trimester amniocentesis, retrieved from routine storage for analysis. MEASUREMENTS: Inhibin A, inhibin B, pro- αC inhibin, total activin A and follistatin were measured using sensitive and specific enzyme linked immunosorbent assays. RESULTS: The median (10th- 90th percentiles) amniotic fluid inhibin A level in the control pregnancies increased from 334 (122-553)ng/l at 14 weeks' to 695 (316-1475) ng/l at 19 weeks' gestation. The corresponding figures for inhibin B and the α-subunit precursor inhibin pro-αC were 632 (185-1354) and 2062 (1237-3381) ng/l, respectively at 14 weeks' and 2439 (748-5307) and 3115 (2021-6567) ng/l, respectively at 19 weeks' gestation. Total activin A increased from 3795 (1554-5296) at 14 weeks' to 5086 (3059-8224) at 18 weeks' gestation. Expressed as multiples of the median (MoM) the median (95% Cl) amniotic fluid levels of inhibin A, inhibin B, pro-αC inhibin and acitivin A in the Down's syndrome samples were 0.77 (0.59-0.85), 0.94 (0.63-1.23), 0.77 (0.49-0.84) and 0.77 (0.53-0.87), respectively. Compared to controls the levels of inhibin A, pro-αC inhibin and activin A were significantly lower in Down's syndrome pregnancies (P<0.01, Mann-Whitney U test). Follistatin levels in the controls declined slightly from 2106 (1421-3538) ng/l at 14 weeks' to 1600 (1281-2543) ng/l at 18 weeks' gestation. Levels in the Downs' syndrome pregnancies were similar to controls. CONCLUSIONS: The data suggest that the production, secretion or metabolism of the inhibin α- and β(A)-subunits is altered in Down's syndrome pregnancies in the second trimester.