The regional distribution of corticotropin-releasing factor1 (CRF1) and CRF2 binding sites was assessed autoradiographically in adult rat brain. The differential pharmacological profiles of the CRF1 and CRF2 receptor subtypes were used for the discrimination of the CRF1 and CRF2 receptor subtypes in rat brain. Pharmacological characterization at the human CRF1 receptor subtype, expressed in baculovirus-infected Sf9 cells, showed high affinity binding (Ki < or = 10.0 nM) for the peptide agonists sauvagine, urotensin I, rat/human CRF, and ovine CRF. Pharmacological characterization at the rat CRF2 receptor subtype expressed in CHO cells showed a rank order affinity for the peptide agonists such that sauvagine, urotensin I and rat/human CRF showed high affinity binding whereas ovine CRF had a Ki value of 300 nM. Based on this differential binding affinity for ovine CRF, [125I]sauvagine binding in the presence of increasing concentrations of ovine CRF was used to discriminate CRF1 from CRF2 receptor subtypes in rat brain. The CRF1 receptor subtype was found to be localized to various regions of the cerebellum, as well as to several cortical areas. The CRF2 receptor subtype was shown to be localized to the lateral septal nucleus, entorhinal cortex, and to amygdaloid and hypothalamic regions. The present autoradiographic findings provide evidence that each subtype has a distinct regional distribution, thus strengthening the suggestion that CRF1 and CRF2 receptors serve different roles in mediating CRF function. Such data suggest that the development of CRF receptor subtype selective antagonists should help to delineate the role of CRF1 and CRF2 receptor subtypes in central nervous system function.