Previous studies have reported elevated concentrations of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in patients with major depression. Elevations of CSF CRF have also been reported in adult laboratory animals exposed to the stress of brief maternal deprivation or maternal neglect in the neonatal or preweaning period. The present study was designed to determine whether major depression and a history of perceived early adversity in childhood are independently associated with elevated CSF CRF concentrations in adults. In this case-control study, 27 medication-free adults with major depression and 25 matched controls underwent standardized lumbar puncture for collection of a single CSF sample at 1200. Subjects provided data about significant adverse early-life experiences and rated their global perceived level of stress during pre-school and preteen years on a six-point Likert scale. The mean difference in CSF CRF between depressed patients and controls did not reach statistical significance. In a regression model, perceived early-life stress was a significant predictor of CSF CRF, but depression was not. Perinatal adversity and perceived adversity in the preteen adversity years (ages 6-13 years) were both independently associated with decreasing CSF CRF concentrations. The relationship observed between perceived early-life stress and adult CSF CRF concentrations in this study closely parallels recent preclinical findings. More work is needed to elucidate the critical nature and timing of early events that may be associated with enduring neuroendocrine changes in humans.