The hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is known to be activated in depressed patients. Although direct evidence is lacking, this activation is hypothesized to be due to hyperactivity of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons of the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN). Recent immunocytochemical studies in experimental animals and in humans showed that the number of CRH-expressing neurons correlated with the activity of these neurons. In addition, colocalization of AVP in CRH neurons has been shown to be an index for the secretory activity. Therefore, we estimated the total number of CRH-immunoreactive neurons and their fraction showing colocalization with AVP in the PVN of 10 control subjects and of 6 depressed patients who were diagnosed to be suffering from a major depression or a bipolar disorder. The mean total number of CRH-expressing neurons of the 6 depressed patients was four times higher, and the number of CRH neurons co-expressing AVP was almost three times higher than those in the control group. We also determined the two activity parameters of CRH neurons in the PVN of 2 subjects with a depressive organic mood syndrome or a depressive disorder not otherwise specified. In these two 'non-major depressed' subjects, the activity parameters of CRH neurons were comparable to those of control subjects. Our observations strongly support the hypothesis that CRH neurons in the PVN are hyperactivated in major depressed patients. This hyperactivity might be causally related to at least part of the symptomatology of depression.