The norepinephrine nucleus, locus coeruleus (LC), has been implicated in cognitive aspects of the stress response, in part through its regulation by the stress-related neuropeptide, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). LC neurons discharge in tonic and phasic modes that differentially modulate attention and behavior. Here, the effects of exposure to an ethologically relevant stressor, predator odor, on spontaneous (tonic) and auditory-evoked (phasic) LC discharge were characterized in unanesthetized rats. Similar to the effects of CRF, stressor presentation increased tonic LC discharge and decreased phasic auditory-evoked discharge, thereby decreasing the signal-to-noise ratio of the sensory response. This stress-induced shift in LC discharge toward a high tonic mode was prevented by a CRF antagonist. Moreover, CRF antagonism during stress unmasked a large decrease in tonic discharge rate that was opioid mediated because it was prevented by pretreatment with the opiate antagonist, naloxone. Elimination of both CRF and opioid influences with an antagonist combination rendered LC activity unaffected by the stressor. These results demonstrate that both CRF and opioid afferents are engaged during stress to fine-tune LC activity. The predominant CRF influence shifts the operational mode of LC activity toward a high tonic state that is thought to facilitate behavioral flexibility and may be adaptive in coping with the stressor. Simultaneously, stress engages an opposing opioid influence that restrains the CRF influence and may facilitate recovery toward pre-stress levels of activity. Changes in the balance of CRF:opioid regulation of the LC could have consequences for stress vulnerability.
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