Previous studies indicate the existence of subtypes of stressors invoking distinct patterns of neuronal integration. Pathways activated by stress appear to depend on whether the perceived threat is processive/neurogenic or systemic in nature. To test this hypothesis, the present study compares magnitude and extent of c-fos mRNA induction in response to novelty (open field (OF), representing a processive stressor) or ether exposure (representing a systemic stressor). Exposure to the OF or ether fumes both produced increases in plasma corticosterone (CORT) levels; notably, peak levels of secretion were elevated in the ether group, suggestive of augmented HPA secretory activity to this stressor. In situ hybridization analysis of c-fos mRNA induction reveals common and divergent activational properties in the two stress groups. The extent of c-fos mRNA expression was similar in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN), despite stress-related differences in CORT secretion. Analysis of the dorsomedial hypothalamic nucleus, suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and limbic sites, specifically, the lateral septum and medial amygdaloid nucleus, indicate greater c-fos mRNA induction in animals exposed to OF stress. The frontoparietal cortex was only forebrain region showing differential activation by ether. Differential c-fos induction was not observed in the medial preoptic area (ventrolateral quadrant), paraventricular thalamus, dorsolateral striatum or hippocampus. The results indicate that processive and systemic stressors differ not only in the patterning of neuronal activation in the CNS, but also in the extent to which selected stress-sensitive regions are induced.