Previous evidence has suggested a possible relationship between the adrenal steroid, corticosterone (CORT) and neuropeptide Y (NPY) in the brain. To provide a more systematic analysis of this interaction, the present study employed a variety of techniques, including in situ hybridization to measure NPY gene expression, radioimmunoassay to examine peptide levels and radioligand [125I]peptide YY (PYY) binding for analysis of peptide receptors. The results show that adrenalectomy (ADX), which caused a decline in CORT to levels < 0.3 micrograms %, has generally little impact on the hypothalamic NPY projection system under normal, basal conditions. This includes peptide gene expression or content in the area of its cell bodies (arcuate nucleus, ARC), in addition to peptide binding at its receptor sites. While it also includes peptide content at most hypothalamic terminal sites, there are three notable exceptions, namely, the medial paraventricular (PVN) and dorsomedial nuclei and medial preoptic area, where NPY nerve terminals and glucocorticoid receptors are particularly dense and the decline in CORT through ADX markedly reduces NPY content. In contrast, evidence obtained from CORT replacement in ADX rats shows that this steroid has profound impact on all components of the hypothalamic NPY system. This peptide-steroid interaction is apparent at the level of the cell body (ARC), as well as at the nerve terminal or receptor site (PVN and ARC), where CORT levels > 10 micrograms % strongly potentiate NPY gene expression, peptide content and radioligand binding. These and other findings suggest that this CORT-NPY interaction in the hypothalamus occurs physiologically under conditions, e.g., at the onset of the active feeding cycle, when circulating CORT normally rises.