The aim of the present study was to investigate the influence of social status on central nervous alpha 2-adrenoceptors. Using the specific alpha 2-adrenoceptor antagonist [3H]rauwolscine, binding sites in the brains of dominant and subordinate male tree shrews were quantified by in vitro autoradiography. In 5 of the 14 brain structures investigated, subordinates had significantly lower numbers of binding sites than dominants. These structures were the solitary tract nucleus, the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, the periaqueductal gray, the perifornical region of the hypothalamus and the medial nucleus of the amygdala. These brain areas are all intimately involved in the regulation of autonomic functions and of emotional behavior. Also the affinities for [3H]rauwolscine differed between the groups. In 3 nuclei, the solitary tract nucleus, the periaqueductal gray and the medial nucleus of the amygdala, dominants had significantly higher Kd-values than subordinates. This demonstrates the presence of low affinity binding sites in dominants which do not exist in subordinates. It is suggested that the low number of [3H]rauwolscine binding sites in subordinates results from down-regulation of alpha 2-adrenoceptors by high levels of noradrenaline and/or adrenaline. The disappearance of low affinity [3H]rauwolscine binding sites may play an important role in the etiology of psychosocial stress.