Expression of CRF messenger RNA (mRNA) and heteronuclear RNA (hnRNA) as well as the mRNAs encoding the CRF receptors of type 1 (CRF1R) and type 2 alpha (CFR2R) in the brain has been investigated in lean (Fa/?) and obese (fa/fa) Zucker rats. Exonic and intronic in situ hybridization histochemistry was employed to measure the mRNA and hnRNA levels in rats killed before (resting state), during, and 120 min after a treadmill running session. The resting expression of CRF hnRNA in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of obese rats was minimal and comparable to that of lean rats. However, during treadmill running, this expression was higher in obese than in lean rats. In obese rats, the transcription of the CRF1R mRNA in the PVN was high under resting conditions, dropped considerably during running, and rose again to elevated levels 120 min after the treadmill session. In lean rats, CRF1R mRNA in the PVN was minimal before and during running, but rose to a value similar to that in obese rats 120 min after running. In the PVN of obese rats, expression of the CRF1R gene measured during resting conditions was comparable to the level seen after running and proved to be dependent upon the feeding state of the rats. Expression of the CRF2R transcript was reduced in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH) of the obese rat. Plasma ACTH concentrations during treadmill running were lower in obese than in lean animals. Basal and postrunning levels of circulating corticosterone were higher in fa/fa than in Fa/? rats. However, there was no difference in corticosterone levels between lean and obese animals during running. The present results provide evidence for differences between lean and obese rats in the expression of CRF and its receptor within selective hypothalamic nuclei. Given the anorectic and thermogenic properties of CRF and the roles of PVN and VMH in the regulation of energy balance, it can be argued that the observed alterations in the biosynthesis of CRF and its receptors within the PVN and VMH might be related to the development of obesity.