Stress is known to precipitate or worsen a number of disorders, such as migraines, in which mast cells are suspected of being involved by releasing vasoactive, nociceptive, and proinflammatory mediators. However, no functional association has been demonstrated yet between a migraine trigger and brain mast cell activation. Nontraumatic immobilization (restrain) stress has been shown to stimulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and to cause redistribution of immune cells. Here, restrain stress caused degranulation in 70% of rat dura mast cells within 30 min, as shown both by light and electron microscopy. These morphologic findings were accompanied by cerebrospinal fluid elevation of rat mast cell protease I, but not II, indicating secretion from connective tissue type mast cells. Mast cell activation due to stress was abolished in animals that had been treated neonatally with capsaicin, indicating that neuropeptides in sensory nerve endings are involved in this response. Complete inhibition was also achieved by pretreating the animals ip with polyclonal antiserum to CRH. Mast cells in the dura were localized close to nerve processes containing substance P, but no CRH-positive fibers were identified even though these were found close to mast cells in the median eminence. This is the first time that stress is shown to activate intracranial mast cells; apparently through the sequential action of CRH and sensory neuropeptides. These findings may have implications for the pathophysiology and possible therapy of neuroinflammatory disorders such as migraines, which are induced or exacerbated by stress.