The time courses of changes in rat brain neuroactive steroid concentrations and gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptor function elicited by acute stress were investigated in animals exposed to CO2 for 1 min, a treatment known to induce stress in rats and panic attacks in humans. Inhalation of CO2 induced increases in cerebral cortical steroid concentrations, the time dependence of which varied with the steroid examined. Thus, progesterone and deoxycorticosterone showed maximal increases (10- and 4-fold, respectively) 10 min after CO2 inhalation and had returned to basal values by 30 and 60 min, respectively. In contrast, pregnenolone and 3alpha-hydroxy-5alpha-pregnan-20-one (allopregnanolone) concentrations showed maximal increases (+174 and + 200%, respectively) at 30 min, were still higher than control at 60 min and returned to control values 120 min after stress. Inhalation of CO2 also resulted in increases in plasma steroid concentrations, most of which peaked at 30 min and had returned to control values by 60 min. A parallel analysis of the stress-induced changes in GABAA receptor function, assessed either biochemically by t-[35S]butylbicyclophosphorothionate ([35S]TBPS) binding to cerebral cortical membranes or behaviorally by the punished responding score in Vogel's test, showed that the effects of CO2 inhalation on both parameters were maximal (+51 and -40%, respectively) after 10 min; the behavioral reaction returned to normal after 60 min, whereas [35S]TBPS binding had returned to control values 120 min after stress. The results show that: (a) the maximal increase in the brain concentrations of allopregnanolone, a potent and efficacious positive modulator of GABAA receptors, occurred at a time (30 min) when both conflict behavior and [35S]TBPS binding begun to decrease, and (b) both allopregnanolone concentrations and [35S]TBPS binding had returned to control values 120 min after CO2 inhalation. The data are thus consistent with a physiological role of neuroactive steroids in restoring GABAergic tone after stress.