The development of the organism is subjected to critical and complex influences during the perinatal period. Prenatal and postnatal stresses can have different long-term behavioral effects, and appropriate postnatal manipulations can counteract the behavioral effects of prenatal stress. In the present study, we investigated the involvement of changes in the activity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the long-term effects of prenatal and postnatal events and of interactions between them. We investigated stress-induced corticosterone secretion and hippocampal corticosteroid receptors in male adult rats submitted to prenatal and/or postnatal manipulations. Repeated restraint during the last week of pregnancy was used as prenatal stressor, and adoption at birth was used to change the postnatal environment. We found that (1) prenatal stress prolongs stress-induced corticosterone secretion in adult rats, which was attributed to the observed decrease in central corticosteroid receptors; (2) adoption, irrespective of the stress experience of the foster mother, reverses the effects of prenatal stress; and (3) adoption per se increases maternal behavior and decreases the stress- induced corticosterone secretion peak in the adult offspring. In conclusion, certain prenatal and postnatal manipulations appear to have opposite long-term effects on the activity of the HPA axis, and adoption, probably by modifying maternal behavior, can protect against the effects of prenatal stress. Thus, changes in the activity of the HPA axis may be one of the biological substrates of the long-term effects of certain perinatal events.