Previous studies have demonstrated that stressors alter cellular immune system function, and increase the activity of locus coeruleus neurons. Furthermore, stressors increase the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and locus coeruleus neurons are activated by CRH. Thus, the present study examined whether activation of the locus coeruleus by infusion of CRH modulates the function of blood and spleen lymphocytes assessed in vitro. CRH (100 ng) was administered into the region of the locus coeruleus in awake rats 1 hr before spleen and peripheral blood lymphocytes were collected for culture with nonspecific mitogens. Unilateral or bilateral microinfusion of CRH into the locus coeruleus produced a decrease in blood and spleen T-lymphocyte mitogenic responses to phytohemagglutinin, ConA, and an antibody to the T- lymphocyte antigen receptor. In contrast, infusion of saline into the locus coeruleus or CRH into the surrounding region of the dorsal pons did not alter spleen or blood lymphocyte responses. Plasma concentrations of adrenocorticotropic hormone, corticosterone, and IL-6 were increased by CRH infusion into the locus coeruleus. These results suggest that CRH-evoked activation of the locus coeruleus stimulates the hypophysial adrenal axis, possibly activates the sympathetic nervous system, and results in immunosuppression. Comparable changes in lymphocyte and hormone responses are produced by an aversive stimulus or a conditioned stressor, suggesting that activation of the locus coeruleus may be a component of stressor-induced immune alterations.