The effects of acute and chronic stress on the release of ACTH and beta-endorphin in response to stimulation by ovine corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and arginine vasopressin were examined. Pituitaries were removed from rats who had received either acute stress, chronic stress daily for 14 days with the last stress occurring 24 h before decapitation, or chronic stress followed by an acute stress immediately before decapitation (chronic stress-acute stress). Pituitaries from naive unstressed animals were used as the control group. After processing into single cell suspensions, the pituitaries were incubated with various doses of CRF (10(-11) M to 10(-9) M) and AVP (10(-10) M to 10(-8) M). Release of ACTH and beta-endorphin into the medium was measured by RIA. A clear dose-dependent response to both releasers was seen in control pituitaries. In acute stress, a decreased responsiveness to arginine vasopressin and CRF was seen. This same blunted response was not seen in chronic stress even if the animals are stressed immediately before decapitation. At higher doses of CRF (10(-9) M) a substantially increased release of ACTH and beta-endorphin was seen in the chronically stressed rats. When the content of the anterior pituitary lobe was assayed in these animals, both chronic stress groups show increased content of ACTH and beta-endorphin, which may indicate an increase amount of ACTH and beta-endorphin in the releasable pools in chronic stress. In addition, the failure of further stress to alter the response to CRF in the chronic stress-acute stress group may indicate a down-regulation of the steroid feedback on the pituitary. However, it is clear that no down-regulation of the CRF receptor occurs in this chronic stress paradigm.