Arginine vasopressin (AVP) acts synergistically with corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to stimulate ACTH release from the anterior pituitary. In a previous study of bilateral simultaneous inferior petrosal sinus (IPS) sampling in healthy human subjects, we observed lateralized ACTH secretion, suggesting lateralized secretion of an ACTH-regulating hypothalamic factor. To investigate this possibility, we measured ACTH, CRH, AVP, and oxytocin (OT) levels in the IPS and the peripheral circulation in nine normal volunteers, before and after 1 microgram/kg i.v. bolus ovine CRH (oCRH). At baseline, ACTH, AVP, and OT exhibited a significant (P < 0.05) two to threefold intersinus gradient (ISG), indicating the existence of a dominant petrosal sinus. Endogenous CRH was undetectable in all samples. Despite similar exogenous oCRH levels in both petrosal sinuses, oCRH caused a significant increase (P < 0.001) in the ACTH ISG (15.8 +/- 5.6, mean +/- SEM), suggesting increased responsiveness of one dominant side of the anterior pituitary. This was associated with an ipsilateral CRH-induced AVP release and a significant increase (P < 0.01) in the AVP ISG (8.6 +/- 2.3), suggesting lateralized AVP secretion by the hypothalamus. Furthermore, the increased AVP ISG after oCRH correlated strongly with the ACTH ISG (r = 0.92, P < 0.01). oCRH administration did not affect OT. These findings suggest that there is a dominant petrosal sinus in healthy volunteers that appears to reflect a dominant side of the adenohypophysis, characterized by increased functional activity and/or responsiveness of the pituitary corticotrophs. This may reflect lateralized hypothalamic and/or suprahypothalamic function resulting in CRH-responsive lateralized secretion of AVP from parvocellular and/or magnocellular axons in the median eminence and the posterior pituitary. Although the functional and teleologic significance of these findings remains to be investigated, our data suggest a novel mechanism for CRH-mediated ACTH release, namely CRH-induced release of AVP which then enhances CRH action on the corticotrophs. Furthermore, our data represent the first direct evidence for the concept of brain lateralization with respect to neuroendocrine secretion.