The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis is activated in pregnancy and parturition. Levels of immunoreactive corticotrophin releasing factor (irCRF), immunoreactive adrenocorticotropic hormone (irACTH) and cortisol concentrations in maternal plasma are elevated throughout gestation, increase further during labour and fall precipitously after parturition. The placenta contains biologically active CRF and ACTH and it has been suggested that the placenta produces these peptides during pregnancy. Here we show that irCRF is located in the cytotrophoblast cells of placenta collected at term. Using a monolayer primary culture of human placental cells we have found that CRF stimulates secretion of peptides containing the ACTH sequence in the placenta in a dose-dependent manner, as it does in the pituitary. This effect is reversed by a CRF antagonist and is mimicked by dibutyryl cyclic AMP and forskolin. Glucocorticoids, which suppress the secretion of pituitary ACTH, were found to have no influence on release of irACTH by the placenta. Oxytocin and prostaglandins stimulate irACTH and irCRF secretion from cultured placental cells and the irACTH-releasing activity of two prostaglandins is partially reversed by a CRF antagonist. Thus CRF may be involved in the paracrine regulation of placental irACTH secretion.