Spontaneous and stress-evoked discharge of locus coeruleus neurons were characterized in rats with a history of stress. Rats exposed to one or five daily 30-min sessions of footshock were anesthetized with halothane and surgically prepared for locus coeruleus single-unit recording immediately following the last session. Locus coeruleus spontaneous discharge rate and discharge evoked by sciatic nerve stimulation were comparable between acutely and repeatedly stressed rats and controls. In contrast, locus coeruleus activation produced by intracerebroventricular administration of corticotropin-releasing factor (3 micrograms) or by hypotensive challenge (which requires endogenous corticotropin-releasing factor release in the locus coeruleus) was greatly attenuated in acutely stressed rats. The corticotropin-releasing factor dose-response curve was shifted to the right in acutely stressed rats compared with controls. In repeatedly stressed rats, the effects of 3 micrograms corticotropin-releasing factor on locus coeruleus discharge were similarly diminished. Although the maximum effect produced by corticotropin-releasing factor was decreased in these rats, the dose-response curve was shifted to the left, indicative of sensitization. Hypotensive challenge, which was ineffective in acutely stressed rats, increased locus coeruleus discharge of repeatedly stressed rats by a similar magnitude as in matched controls. The return of locus coeruleus responsiveness to hypotension in repeatedly stressed rats may be related to the sensitization to corticotropin-releasing factor. Finally, the protocol of repeated stress did not alter the affinity or density of corticotropin-releasing factor receptors in either the frontal cortex or brainstem. Taken together, the results suggest that a history of stress alters corticotropin-releasing factor neurotransmission in the locus coeruleus at the postsynaptic level. However, these effects are not reflected by corticotropin-releasing factor binding kinetics in brainstem. Stress-induced changes in corticotropin-releasing factor neurotransmitter function in the locus coeruleus may play a role in certain symptoms of stress-related psychiatric disorders.