The role of the neuropeptide corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in mediating the behavioral effects of ethanol withdrawal in the rat was examined using the elevated plus-maze test. In Experiment 1, CRF (0.5 microgram ICV) reduced the percentage of time spent on the open arms of the elevated plus-maze, consistent with an "anxiogenic-like" effect. CRF also reduced the total number of arm entries, indicating a reduction in general activity. Low doses (5 and 25 micrograms ICV) of the CRF antagonist, alpha-helical CRF produced no behavioral effects in the elevated plus-maze, while a higher dose (50 micrograms ICV) elicited CRF-like activity. In experiment 2, rats were maintained for 2-3 weeks on a liquid diet containing ethanol (8.5-11.5% v/v) or sucrose. Eight hours after withdrawal from the ethanol diet rats displayed "anxiogenic-like" responses as well as a reduction in general activity in the elevated plus-maze compared with rats withdrawn from control diet. Alpha-helical CRF significantly antagonized the "anxiogenic-like" effects of ethanol withdrawal in the plus-maze. General activity and physical signs of ethanol withdrawal such as tail stiffness, body tremor and ventromedial distal flexion were unaffected by alpha-helical CRF. Blood Alcohol Levels (BALs) determined immediately after removal of the ethanol diet showed no group differences in ethanol consumption. These results suggest that increased activity of central CRF systems may mediate the anxiogenic effects of ethanol withdrawal.