Endogenous central corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) may be involved in the neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to cocaine. In the present study, levels of CRF mRNA were measured in the hypothalamus and in several extrahypothalamic brain regions after different regimens of "binge"-pattern cocaine administration. Male Fischer rats were injected with saline or cocaine (15 mg/kg, 1 hr x 3/day) at the beginning of the light cycle, to approximate the manner in which cocaine is often abused by humans, both in terms of temporal pattern and in relation to circadian rhythm. Cocaine administered in this binge regimen produced time-dependent alterations of CRF mRNA levels in the hypothalamus. There was a significant increase in CRF mRNA levels on day 1, which returned to base-line levels on day 2, with elevated plasma corticosterone levels on both days. CRF receptor type 1 and prooplomeianocortin mRNA levels in the anterior lobe of the pituitary were not significantly altered after acute cocaine injections on day 1 or day 2. On day 14 of chronic binge-pattern cocaine administration, decreased hypothalamic CRF mRNA levels and an attenuated elevation in plasma corticosterone levels were found. After 10 days of withdrawal from 14-day binge cocaine, CRF mRNA returned to basal levels. CRF mRNA levels in the amygdala were also significantly increased on day 1 and returned to basal values on day 2. Chronic (14-day) binge cocaine administration did not alter CRF mRNA levels in the amygdala. These results suggest that the attenuated response in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to chronic binge cocaine administration is coupled to the cocaine-induced decreases in CRF gene expression in the hypothalamus and that activation of CRF gene expression in extrahypothalamic regions may have implications for a molecular understanding of the behavioral responses to cocaine.