Nociceptin/orphanin FQ (N/OFQ) is an opioid-related peptide that stimulates corticosterone release after i.c.v. administration in non-stressed rats. We employed in situ hybridization histochemistry to investigate N/OFQ-stimulated activation of the HPA axis at the hypothalamic and pituitary level. We have demonstrated that N/OFQ-induced activation of the HPA axis is mediated via the central N/OFQ peptide receptor (NOP) using the recently described selective NOP antagonist [Nphe(1),Arg(14),Lys(15)]nociceptin/orphanin FQ-NH(2) (UFP-101). We found that, at 30 min post-i.c.v. injection, N/OFQ dose-dependently increased plasma adrenocorticotrophin hormone and corticosterone compared with the vehicle-injected controls. N/OFQ (1.0 microg) significantly increased CRF mRNA but not AVP mRNA within the parvocellular hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus compared with the control group, and significantly increased pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA in the anterior pituitary. While UFP-101 (1.0 microg) alone had no significant effect on plasma corticosterone concentration it blocked the effect of N/OFQ (1.0 microg) on plasma corticosterone levels when compared with N/OFQ administered alone. UFP-101 also blocked the N/OFQ-induced increase in CRF mRNA and POMC mRNA. These results demonstrate that centrally administered N/OFQ activates the HPA axis via up-regulation of CRF and POMC mRNA and stimulation of corticosterone release in rats. Further, we have demonstrated for the first time that the selective NOP receptor antagonist UFP-101 blocks these effects indicating that N/OFQ-induced HPA axis activation is mediated via central NOP receptors.