Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) released in the gastrointestinal mucosa from immune cells or enterochromaffin cells may play a role in the modulation of rectal afferent function. In the current study we evaluated the effects of peripherally administered CRF on afferent mechanisms in the human rectum. We used rectal balloon distention in seven healthy volunteers to evaluate the effect of CRF (1 microgram/kg) on visceral afferents originating in the rectum which are involved in the following functions: thresholds and intensity of conscious perception, receptive relaxation, reflex inhibition of internal anal sphincter and a viscerosomatic reflex. Rectal mechanoreceptors were stimulated either by distending the rectum using a volume ramp (40 and 400 mL/min), or by intermittent phasic distention. CRF decreased the thresholds and increased the intensity for the sensation of discomfort in response to both ramp and phasic distention. During slow ramp distention, CRF also lowered the stool threshold. CRF increased rectal compliance during slow ramp distention without affecting the rate of receptive relaxation or the inflection point of the compliance curve. CRF had no effect on viscerosomatic referral patterns, or on the rectoanal inhibitory reflex. These findings are consistent with a dual effect of CRF on afferent pathways mediating perception of aversive rectal sensations, and on rectal smooth muscle.