Acute, uncontrollable stress increases norepinephrine (NE) turnover in the rat's brain (thereby depleting NE) and diminishes the animal's subsequent tendency to explore a novel environment. We determined whether supplemental dietary tyrosine could prevent some of these changes. Rats given a control diet or diets enriched with tyrosine or tyrosine plus valine were exposed to tail-shock stress or to no stress over a 60-min period. Exposure to the stress caused an increase in NE turnover, decreasing NE and increasing 3-methoxy-4-hydroxy-phenylethylene glycol sulfate (MHPG-SO4) concentrations within the locus coeruleus, hypothalamus and hippocampus. No changes were detected in serotonin (5-HT) levels or turnover. Behavioral deficits following the stress were observed using measures of locomotion and of exploration in a novel open-field environment: stressed animals displayed much less spontaneous motor activity, hole-poking or frequency of standing on their hind legs than control animals. Animals receiving the tyrosine-enriched diet displayed neither the stress-induced depletion of NE nor the behavioral depression. These preventive effects of tyrosine were abolished by co-administration of valine, a large neutral amino acid that competes with tyrosine for transport across the blood-brain barrier. Since tyrosine alone, in animals not subjected to stress, did not change NE turnover nor the behaviors studied, our observations affirm that catecholaminergic neurons respond to the precursor amino acid only when they are physiologically active. Supplementary tyrosine may be useful therapeutically in people exposed chronically to stress.