Individual variations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function are most evident at or beyond the time of puberty, when marked changes in sex steroid release occur. To explore the nature by which gender differences in HPA function emerge we examined in prepubertal (approximately 30-d-old) and postpubertal (approximately 60-d-old) male and female rats HPA activity under basal conditions and in response to 30 min of restraint. Within the ACTH-regulating, medial parvocellular portion of the paraventricular nucleus, restraint-induced Fos protein and arginine vasopressin heteronuclear RNA were lower in 60- than in 30-d-old males. No such age-related shift in the response of these synaptic and transcriptional markers of cellular activation occurred in female rats. Basal CRH mRNA expression levels in the paraventricular nucleus increased with age in female but not male rats. Conversely, only male rats showed an age-related increase in basal CRH mRNA in the central amygdala, suggesting that neuronal and neurosecretory CRH-expressing cell types are subject to different pubertal and gender influences. We conclude that gonadal regulation of the HPA axis develops via distinct mechanisms in males and females. Puberty-related shifts in parvocellular neurosecretory function in males are emphasized by stress-induced shifts in neuronal activation, whereas biosynthetic alterations dominate in female rats.