The present study was designed to elucidate the neurotransmitters involved in activation of the noradrenergic nucleus, locus coeruleus, by distention of the distal colon. Locus coeruleus spontaneous discharge rate was recorded from halothane-anesthetized rats before, during and after distention of the colon produced by inflation of a balloon catheter with varying volumes of water. Locus coeruleus activation by colon distention was volume-dependent and reversible. Activation of cortical electroencephalographic activity was temporally correlated with locus coeruleus activation during colon distention and prolonged distention (greater than 2 min) resulted in tachyphalaxis to both locus coeruleus and cortical electroencephalographic activation. The corticotropin-releasing factor antagonist, DPheCRF(12-41), administered intracerebroventricularly (3 microg) or microinfused into the locus coeruleus (10 ng) significantly attenuated locus coeruleus activation produced by lower, but not higher magnitudes of colon distention, implicating corticotropin-releasing factor afferents to the locus coeruleus in this response. Consistent with this, prior exposure to 30 min of footshock stress, which desensitizes locus coeruleus neurons to corticotropin-releasing factor, produced a similar attenuation of locus coeruleus activation by low, but not high magnitudes of distention. Kynurenic acid, administered intracerebroventricularly (5 micromol), significantly antagonized locus coeruleus activation by all magnitudes of colon distention. However, this excitatory amino acid antagonist was ineffective when administered directly into the locus coeruleus (0.3 nmol). Together, these findings suggest that low magnitudes of colon distention activate the locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system via corticotropin-releasing factor release within the locus coeruleus and that excitatory amino acid neurotransmission at a site distal to the locus coeruleus is necessary for this response. Activation of the locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system during colon distention may serve as a cognitive limb of the peripheral parasympathetic response. This activation may also play a role in disorders characterized by comorbidity of colonic and psychiatric symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome.