The mechanism regulating pituitary CRH receptors during stress was studied by analysis of the changes in CRH receptor messenger RNA (mRNA) and CRH binding after acute and repeated stress and CRH and vasopressin (VP) administration in intact and adrenalectomized rats. Acute stress caused time- and stress type-dependent changes in pituitary CRH receptor expression. In situ hybridization studies showed biphasic changes in CRH receptor mRNA after immobilization stress for 1 h and decreases by 2 h (P < 0.01). Increases (P < 0.01) were seen 4 and 8 h after the initiation of the stress, and a return to near basal levels by 12 and 18 h. A different pattern, with a decrease by 4 h (P < 0.01) and levels similar to controls after 12 and 18 h, was observed after a single ip injection of hypertonic saline (1.5 M NaCl). Binding autoradiography showed significant increases in pituitary CRH binding 4, 10, and 12 h after immobilization stress, but significant decreases 4, 12, and 18 h after ip hypertonic saline. In contrast, repeated immobilization or ip hypertonic saline for 8 or 14 days increased pituitary CRH receptor mRNA, and CRH binding was decreased. To determine the role of hypothalamic CRH and VP on these stress-induced changes, rats were injected for 14 days with CRH, VP, or their combination at doses mimicking stress levels in pituitary portal circulation (1 microgram/day sc). Repeated injection of CRH or VP increased CRH receptor mRNA and CRH binding (P < 0.05). CRH receptor mRNA levels further increased after combined administration of CRH and VP (P < 0.01), but CRH binding showed a tendency to decrease. The role of glucocorticoids on CRH receptor regulation was studied by analysis of the effects of stress on CRH receptor mRNA and CRH binding in adrenalectomized (ADX) rats with and without corticosterone replacement in the drinking water. Although in 6-day ADX rats pituitary CRH receptor mRNA levels were markedly reduced after acute immobilization, glucocorticoid replacement restored the stimulatory effect of stress to levels observed in intact rats. Similarly, a single sc injection of CRH (1 microgram) decreased CRH receptor mRNA in ADX rats but not in glucocorticoid-replaced ADX rats. CRH binding showed the expected decrease after ADX and was unchanged after stress or CRH injection. The increased pituitary CRH receptor mRNA after stress suggests that stress-induced CRH receptor down-regulation is due to increased receptor occupancy and internalization rather than to a decrease in receptor synthesis. The data suggest that increased hypothalamic secretion of CRH and VP mediates the delayed up-regulatory effect of stress on CRH receptor mRNA, and that resting levels of glucocorticoids are required for this effect. In addition, increased VP levels are permissive for the down-regulation of CRH binding induced by chronic pituitary exposure to stress levels of CRH.