The negative-feedback actions of corticosterone (CORT) depend on both phasic and tonic CORT secretion patterns to regulate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. How these two different CORT secretion pattens influence specific intracellular signal transduction pathway activity within the cellular elements of the HPA axis has not been determined. For example, it is unknown whether CORT has suppressive actions over signal transduction events within medial parvocellular paraventricular nucleus (PVN) corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurones, nor whether these suppressive actions are responsible for alterations in PVN transcriptional processes and neurohormone secretion associated with stress. The extracellular-regulated kinase (ERK) is a stress activated intracellular signalling molecule that is potentially subject to glucocorticoid negative-feedback regulation. We tested the ability of CORT to modulate levels of the active (phosphorylated) form of ERK (pERK1/2) in the PVN of rats. Acute psychological stress (restraint) produced a rapid increase in the number of PVN pERK1/2 immunopositive cells within CRH neurones. Absence of tonic CORT via adrenalectomy (ADX) produced no change in basal pERK1/2 cell counts but augmented the increased pERK1/2 cell counts elicited by acute restraint. Treatment of ADX rats with CORT in the drinking water normalised this enhanced pERK1/2 response to stress. By contrast, treatment of ADX rats with a phasic increase in CORT 1 h before restraint had no effect on pERK1/2 cell counts, despite substantially suppressing stress-induced PVN crh gene expression and adrenonocorticotrophic hormone secretion. This tonic CORT inhibition of stress-induced activation of ERK1/2 may involve both alteration of the activity of stress-dependent neural inputs to PVN CRH neurones and alteration within those neurones of stress-dependent intracellular signalling mechanisms associated with ERK activation.