The present study evaluated the modulatory role of central corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) systems in the mediation of the effects of acute exposure to the brain cannabinoid receptor agonist HU-210 [3-(1,1-dimethylheptyl)-(-)-11-hydroxy-delta 8-tetrahydrocannabinol] on defensive withdrawal behavior in male rats. The apparatus used for the defensive withdrawal test consisted of a small chamber, set on one side of a one-square meter open field. The actions of the potent CRF antagonist [D-Phe12,Nle21,38,C alpha MeLeu37]CRF (D-Phe CRF12-41) were examined on defensive behavior under both novel and familiar conditions. The acute i.c.v. administration of D-Phe CRF12-41 (0.2-5 micrograms/injection) antagonized the defensive behavior response to stressing conditions such as novelty or swim stress in field-habituated animals. The acute i.p. administration of HU-210 (4, 20 and 100 micrograms/kg) produced a clear dose-dependent stress-like effects in field-habituated animals, as reflected in the HU-210-induced increase in both the emergence latency and the mean time spent in the small chamber. The i.c.v. administration of 5 micrograms of D-Phe CRF12-41, 5 min before the administration of the cannabinoid prevented the stressing actions of HU-210 (20 micrograms/kg, but not 100 micrograms/kg). Acute administration of HU-210 also induced a dose-dependent increase in plasma corticosterone levels which was not antagonized by pretreatment with 5 micrograms of D-Phe CRF12-41. The present study suggests a role of central CRF systems in the mediation of the anxiogenic effects of brain cannabinoid receptor agonists. This finding is consistent with a direct hypothalamic effect of cannabinoids on the activation of the pituitary-adrenal axis.