The hypothalamic-pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) system and sympathoneural and adrenomedullary systems are major effector systems that serve to maintain homeostasis during stress. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus, a determinant of both HPA and autonomic responses to stress, is under the control of many neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. Norepinephrine (NE) potently stimulates CRH neurons in the PVN; however, the physiologic role of NE in stress-induced activation of the HPA is unknown. In the present study we exposed animals to various stressors (immobilization (IMMO), cold (COLD), hemorrhage (HEM), hypoglycemia elicited by insulin administration (INS), pain and tissue damage caused by formalin injection (FORM) and sc injection of physiological saline (SAL), all of which are known to activate the HPA axis. Injection of physiological saline iv was used as a control. In vivo microdialysis was used to assess stressor- and intensity-specific activation of the PVN noradrenergic system, based on measurements of NE, its intraneuronal metabolite dihydroxyphenylglycol (DHPG), and the dopamine metabolite, dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (DOPAC). Simultaneously with microdialysate collections, blood samples were obtained via catheters in the femoral artery to measure plasma ACTH and corticosterone (CORT) levels as dependent measures, to assess stress-induced activation of the HPA axis. At their highest intensities, all the stressors significantly increased levels of PVN microdialysate NE, DHPG, and DOPAC, and plasma ACTH and CORT. PVN NE levels varied across stressors, with IMMO and FORM more potent than INS, COLD, or HEM. INS and HEM evoked proportionately larger plasma ACTH responses than did IMMO, FORM, and COLD. Plasma CORT responses were largest during IMMO, FORM, and HEM. Except for COLD and HEM, there was a strong correlation of plasma ACTH levels with levels of NE, DHPG, and DOPAC in PVN microdialysate. The data suggest that, except for COLD or HEM, there is a strong positive correlation of PVN noradrenergic activation and activity of the HPA axis. With stressors such as IMMO and FORM, NE synthesis, reflected by DOPAC changes, is strongly positively correlated with activity of the HPA axis. Furthermore, the results indicate substantial stressor specificity of PVN catecholaminergic and of HPA responses to different stressors and are inconsistent with a founding tenet of Selye's stress theory, the doctrine of nonspecificity, which defines stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand.