The ability of ethyl alcohol to modify responses to stress has been well documented (cf. Pohorecky, 1990). However, the structural substrate mediating these effects of alcohol remains undefined. Using immediate early gene (IEG) expression in the brain as a marker of altered neuronal response, we investigated the effect of acute alcohol exposure on the activity of brain regions of rats exposed to 15 min of restraint stress. Immunocytochemical localization c-Fos protein demonstrated that restraint stress led to an induction of c-Fos expression in several brain structures including cingulate and piriform cortex, cortico-amygdaloid and hippocampo-amygdaloid transition zones, hippocampus, hypothalamus, supramammillary nucleus, and centromedial nucleus of thalamus. An intraperitoneal injection of 2 g/kg alcohol prior to stress decreased c-Fos expression in several but not all of these structures. In particular, alcohol strongly attenuated the stress- induced expression of c-Fos in hippocampus and cingulate cortex. Using slot-blot hybridization, significant induction of c-fos mRNA after restraint stress was demonstrated both in hippocampus and cortex, but prior alcohol exposure specifically attenuated c-fos induction only in the hippocampus. The response of c-fos mRNA expression to stress and alcohol differed from the effects on jun-B, c-jun and jun-D mRNA levels. Perhaps surprisingly, acute exposure to alcohol in otherwise unstressed rats did not induce significant changes in expression of IEGs in comparison to control (saline-injected) animals even with doses sufficient to elevate plasma corticosterone. In summary, these studies demonstrate a selective sensitivity of stress-induced activity of neurons of hippocampus and cingulate cortex to acute alcohol exposure.