In Alzheimer's disease (AD) there are dramatic reductions in the content of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), reciprocal increases in CRF receptors, and morphological abnormalities in CRF neurons in affected brain areas. Cognitive impairment in AD patients is associated with a lower cerebrospinal fluid concentration of CRF, which is known to induce increases in learning and memory in rodents. This suggests that CRF deficits contribute to cognitive impairment. The identification in post-mortem brain of CRF-binding protein (CRF-BP), a high-affinity binding protein that inactivates CRF, and the differential distribution of CRF-BP and CRF receptors, provides the potential for improving learning and memory without stress effects of CRF receptor agonists. Here we show that ligands that dissociate CRF from CRF-BP increase brain levels of 'free CRF' in AD to control levels and show cognition-enhancing properties in models of learning and memory in animals without the characteristic stress effects of CRF receptor agonists.