Several studies performed in outbred Roman high- and low-avoidance lines (RHA and RLA, respectively) have demonstrated that the more anxious line (RLA) is characterized by a higher hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to certain stressors than the less anxious one (RHA). However, inconsistent results have also been reported. Taking advantage of the generation of an inbred colony of RLA and RHA rats (RHA-I and RLA-I, respectively), we have characterized in the two strains not only resting and stress levels of peripheral HPA hormones but also central components of the HPA axis, including CRF gene expression in extra-hypothalamic areas. Whereas resting levels of ACTH and corticosterone did not differ between the strains, a greater response to a novel environment was found in RLA-I as compared to RHA-I rats. RLA-I rats showed enhanced CRF gene expression in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus, with normal arginin-vasopressin gene expression in both parvocellular and magnocellular regions of the PVN. This enhanced CRF gene expression is not apparently related to altered negative corticosteroid feedback as similar levels of expression of brain glucorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors were found in the two rat strains. CRF gene expression tended to be higher in the central amygdala and it was significantly higher in the dorsal region of the bed nucleus of stria terminalis (BNST) of RLA-I rats, while no differences appeared in the ventral region of BNST. Considering the involvement of CRF and the BNST in anxiety and stress-related behavioral alterations, the present data suggest that the CRF system may be a critical neurobiological substrate underlying differences between the two rat strains.