Physiological and immunohistochemical studies have suggested that corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), the hypophysiotropic peptide that initiates endocrine responses to stress, may serve as a neurotransmitter to activate noradrenergic neurons in the nucleus locus coeruleus (LC). We combined immunoperoxidase labeling for CRF and immunogold-silver localization of the catecholamine-synthesizing enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) in single sections through the rat LC to determine potential substrates for interactions between these two transmitters. Light microscopic analysis indicated that CRF processes are dense and highly varicose in the rostral LC region in the vicinity of noradrenergic dendrites. Electron microscopy of this rostral region revealed that immunoperoxidase labeling for CRF was mainly restricted to axons and axon terminals and was rarely seen in somata or dendrites. Axon terminals containing CRF immunoreactivity varied in size, content of synaptic vesicles, and formation of synaptic specializations. The postsynaptic targets of the CRF-labeled axon terminals consisted of both TH-labeled dendrites and dendrites lacking detectable TH-immunoreactivity. Of 113 CRF-immunoreactive axon terminals, approximately 70% were in direct contact with TH-labeled and unlabeled dendrites. Of the CRF-labeled axon terminals forming synapses with TH-labeled and unlabeled dendrites, they were either of the asymmetric (excitatory type; 19%) or symmetric (inhibitory type; 11%) variety or did not form identifiable contacts in the plane of section analyzed. Unlabeled axon terminals and glial processes were also commonly located adjacent to the plasma membranes of CRF-labeled axon terminals. These results provide the first direct ultrastructural evidence that axon terminals containing CRF-immunoreactivity 1) directly contact catecholamine-containing dendrites within the rostral pole of the LC, 2) may presynaptically modulate other afferents, and 3) are often enveloped by astrocytic processes.