Nicotine is a potent stimulus for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Systemic nicotine acts via central mechanisms to stimulate by multiple pathways the release of ACTH from the anterior pituitary corticotrops and corticosterone from the adrenal cortex. Nicotine may stimulate indirectly the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus, the site of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons which activates ACTH release. In the present studies an involvement of adrenergic system and prostaglandins synthesized by constitutive cyclooxygenase (COX-1) and inducible cyclooxygenase (COX-2) in the nicotine-induced HPA response in rats was investigated. Nicotine (2.5-5 mg/kg i.p.) significantly increased plasma ACTH and corticosterone levels measured 1 hr after administration. Adrenergic receptor antagonists or COX inhibitors were injected i.p. 15 min prior to nicotine and the rats were decapitated 1 hr after the last injection. Prazosin (0.01-0.1 mg/kg), an alpha1-adrenergic antagonist, significantly decreased the nicotine-evoked ACTH and corticosterone secretion. Yohimbine (0.1-1.0 mg/kg), an alpha2-adrenergic antagonist, moderately diminished ACTH response, and propranolol (0.1-10 mg/kg), a beta-adrenergic antagonist, did not significantly alter the nicotine-induced hormones secretion. Pretreatment with piroxicam (0.2-2.0 mg/kg), a COX-1 inhibitor, considerably impaired the nicotine-induced ACTH and corticosterone secretion. Compound NS-398 (0.2-5.0 mg/kg), a selective COX-2 blocker did not markedly alter these hormones secretion, and indomethacin (2 mg/kg), a non-selective COX inhibitor significantly diminished ACTH response. These results indicate that systemic nicotine stimulates the HPA axis indirectly, and both adrenergic system and prostaglandins are significantly involved in this stimulation. Noradrenaline, stimulating postsynaptic alpha1-adrenergic receptors, and prostaglandins, synthesized by COX-1 isoenzyme, are of crucial significance in the nicotine-induced ACTH and corticosterone secretion.