By most accounts the psychological stressor restraint produces a distinct pattern of neuronal activation in the brain. However, some evidence is incongruous with this pattern, leading us to propose that the restraint-induced pattern in the central nervous system might depend on the duration of restraint used. We therefore determined the pattern of neuronal activation (as indicated by the presence of Fos protein) seen in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN), bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, amygdala, locus coeruleus, nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), ventrolateral medulla (VLM) and thoracic spinal cord of the rat in response to 0, 15, 30 or 60 min periods of restraint. We found that although a number of cell groups displayed a linear increase in activity with increasing durations of restraint (e.g. hypothalamic corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) cells, medial amygdala neurons and sympathetic preganglionic neurons of the thoracic spinal cord), a number of cell groups did not. For example, in the central amygdala restraint produced both a decrease in CRF cell activity and an increase in non-CRF cell activity. In the locus coeruleus, noradrenergic neurons did not display Fos in response to 15 min of restraint, but were significantly activated by 30 or 60 min restraint. After 30 or 60 min restraint a greater degree of activation of more rostral A1 noradrenergic neurons was observed compared with the pattern of A1 noradrenergic neurons in response to 15 min restraint. The results of this study demonstrate that restraint stress duration determines the amount and the pattern of neuronal activation seen in response to this psychological stressor.