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Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the principal regulator of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is also secreted in peripheral inflammatory sites, where it acts as a local proinflammatory agent. Arthritis-susceptible LEW/N rats have profoundly deficient hypothalamic CRH responses to inflammatory stimuli and other stressors. Arthritis-resistant F344/N rats, on the other hand, have a robust increase in hypothalamic CRH in response to the same stimuli. Contrasting with these hypothalamic CRH responses, we now show that CRH expression is markedly increased in the joints and surrounding tissues of LEW/N rats with streptococcal cell wall- and adjuvant-induced arthritis, whereas it is not increased in similarly treated F344/N rats and is only transiently increased in congenitally athymic nude LEW.rnu/rnu rats. Glucocorticoid treatment suppressed, but did not eliminate, CRH immunoreactivity in the joints of LEW/N rats. CRH mRNA was present in inflamed synovia, as well as in spinal cord, and inflamed synovia also expressed specific CRH-binding sites. We compared CRH expression in inflamed joints with another well-characterized proinflammatory neuropeptide, substance P (SP), and found that SP immunoreactivity paralleled that of CRH. In summary, although LEW/N rats have deficient hypothalamic CRH responses to inflammatory stimuli compared with F344/N rats, they express relatively high levels of CRH at the site of inflammation. Analogous to SP, CRH may be delivered to the inflammatory site by peripheral nerves and/or synthesized at the inflammatory site. These data provide further support for the concept that CRH not only triggers the pituitary-adrenal antiinflammatory cascade, but also functions as an antithetically active local mediator of acute and chronic inflammatory arthritis. These data also illustrate the complex interrelationships of the nervous, endocrine, immune, and inflammatory systems.