Contact-mediated interactions between Sertoli cells and gonocytes are important for testicular development. Specifically, down-regulation of neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM)-based intercellular adhesion during postnatal maturation is likely to be important for appropriate differentiation of testicular cells. Besides NCAM, P-cadherin is also present in neonatal testicular cords, at least in mice, and seems to disappear from the seminiferous epithelium after the first postnatal week. Another factor known to be important in regulating development of the neonatal testis is thyroid hormone (T3). T3 is involved in control of Sertoli cell proliferation and differentiation. Therefore, we examined the effect(s) of T3 on adhesive factors found within the testis using Sertoli cells and gonocytes isolated from neonates and maintained in coculture. T3 (100 nM) down-regulated NCAM expression in vitro, as assessed by Western blotting and immunofluorescent staining. This contrasted with the continued expression of NCAM in cultures without added T3 but mimicked the disappearance of NCAM from the neonatal rat testis in vivo. In addition, Western analysis confirmed that P-cadherin is highly expressed in the developing rat testes, as it is in those of mice. We found that P-cadherin is strongly expressed in gonocytes and weakly expressed in Sertoli cells. Moreover, unlike NCAM, P-cadherin expression diminishes with time in vitro in the absence of added hormones. In parallel with our observations for NCAM, expression of P-cadherin was also apparently decreased by T3 (100 nM). Subsequent quantitative analyses of cultures exposed to a range of T3 levels (0.1-100 nM) indicated that T3 causes detachment of many gonocytes in a dose- and time-dependent manner (approximately 80% detached at 100 nM). In addition, Western blotting indicated that lower concentrations of T3 down-regulate NCAM but not P-cadherin. From this we conclude that the apparent decrease in P-cadherin induced by 100 nM T3 and detected on Western blots reflects loss of gonocytes. In contrast, even low levels of T3 appear to down-regulate NCAM production before any significant detachment of gonocytes. Finally, low levels of T3 that did not affect numbers of adherent Sertoli cells nevertheless caused detachment of gonocytes. Thus, our observations identify T3 as a regulator of NCAM expression in neonatal testicular cells and as a modifier of gonocyte/Sertoli cell adhesion in vitro.