The neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) stimulates adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secretion from the anterior pituitary gland via activation of central 5-HT1 and 5-HT2 receptors. The effect of 5-HT is predominantly indirect and may be mediated via release of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). We therefore investigated the possible involvement of CRH in the serotonergic stimulation of ACTH secretion in male rats. Increased neuronal 5-HT content induced by systemic administration of the precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) in combination with the 5-HT reuptake inhibitor fluoxetine raised CRH mRNA expression in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) by 64%, increased pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA in the anterior pituitary lobe by 17% and stimulated ACTH secretion five-fold. Central administration of 5-HT agonists specific to 5-HT1A, 5-HT1B, 5-HT2A or 5-HT2C receptors increased CRH mRNA in the PVN by 15-50%, POMC mRNA in the anterior pituitary by 15-27% and ACTH secretion three- to five-fold, whereas a specific 5-HT3 agonist had no effect. Systemic administration of a specific anti-CRH antiserum inhibited the ACTH response to 5-HTP and fluoxetine and prevented the 5-HTP and fluoxetine-induced POMC mRNA response in the anterior pituitary lobe. Central or systemic infusion of 5-HT increased ACTH secretion seven- and eight-fold, respectively. Systemic pretreatment with the anti-CRH antiserum reduced the ACTH responses to 5-HT by 80% and 64%, respectively. It is concluded that 5-HT via activation of 5-HT1A, 5-HT2A, 5-HT2C and possibly also 5-HT1B receptors increases the synthesis of CRH in the PVN and POMC in the anterior pituitary lobe, which results in increased ACTH secretion. Furthermore, the results indicate that CRH is an important mediator of the ACTH response to 5-HT.