Norepinephrine (NE) and epinephrine are important stimulators of GnRH release during the preovulatory surge in female rats. Previous studies have shown that the catecholaminergic neurons are sensitive to estradiol and that NE release in the hypothalamus is decreased in middle-aged rats at the time when the estrous cycles become irregular and later cease to exist. The aims of the present study were to determine whether the NE and epinephrine neurons continue to express estrogen receptor (ER)-alpha in middle-aged rats; temporal expression of ER-alpha and cFos changes with age during the steroid-induced surge; and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH), and phenylethanol-N-methyltransferase mRNA content in catecholaminergic neurons of the brain stem changes during the surge with age. The results show that there was no difference in TH mRNA content; however, DBH mRNA levels in areas A1, A2, and C1 of the middle-aged animals did not rise during the surge as was observed in the young animals. Although the percentage of NE and epinephrine neurons that express ER-a was unchanged during the surge in both young and middle-aged animals, cFos expression was enhanced in areas A1 and A2 of the middle-aged animals but not in the young animals. Together the results suggest that NE and epinephrine neurons in the middle-aged rat continue to express appropriate basal levels of TH, DBH, and phenylethanol-N-methyltransferase mRNAs as well as ER-a and cFos; however, the enhancement of DBH expression, as seen in the young animals during the steroid-induced surge, was not detected in middle-aged animals. On the other hand, cFos expression in the middle-aged rat was higher in areas A1 and A2 during the surge. It is concluded that the reduced catecholamine release during the surge in middle-aged rats is caused, in part, by an altered sensitivity of the NE neurons to estradiol, which results in an aberrant cFos expression and probably not by major deficits in the expression of transmitter synthesizing enzymes or steroid receptors.