Previous studies have shown that LPS and cytokines modulate the binding of glucocorticoids (GCs) in the CNS, and therefore may affect the negative feedback exerted by GCs. In this study, we investigated the effect of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) on the inhibitory action of GCs upon the adrenocortical response to a neural stressful stimulus. Male rats were treated with either LPS (50 micrograms/kg) or saline for 5 consecutive days. Two days later, the LPS- and saline-treated rats were injected intraperitoneally with either dexamethasone (20 micrograms/kg) or saline and sacrificed 3.5 h later, after exposure to acute stressful photic stimulation. In saline-pretreated rats, photic stimulation caused a 5-fold increase in serum corticosterone levels compared to basal levels, and pretreatment with dexamethasone completely abolished this response. In LPS-pretreated rats, corticosterone levels following photic stimulation increased 20-fold, and dexamethasone was ineffective. Additional experiments were conducted to examine whether the impairment in the negative feedback was specific to the prolonged LPS treatment, rather than to LPS-induced hypersecretion of GCs. In groups of rats which were exposed to either daily acoustic stress or daily administration of corticosterone (5 mg, twice daily) for 5 days, the pattern of corticosterone secretion mimicked the corticosterone secretion induced by LPS. In these groups, the adrenocortical response to acute photic stimulation and the effect of dexamethasone were similar to saline-pretreated controls. These results suggest that LPS impairs the negative feedback of either endogenous or exogenous GC upon the adrenocortical response to stress. This finding may be relevant to the enhanced adrenocortical activity associated with sepsis and major depression.