Individuals with clinical disorders associated with elevated plasma glucocorticoids, such as major depressive disorder and Cushing's syndrome, are reported to have smaller hippocampal volume. To understand how the hippocampus responds at the cellular and subcellular levels to glucocorticoids and how such changes are related to volume measures, we have undertaken a comprehensive study of glucocorticoid effects on hippocampal CA3 volume and identified elements in the neuropil including astrocytic volume and cell and synapse number and size. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were injected with corticosterone (40 mg/kg), the primary glucocorticoid in rodents, or vehicle for 60 days. The CA3 was further subdivided so that the two-thirds of CA3 (nearest the dentate gyrus) previously shown to be vulnerable to corticosterone could be analyzed as two separate subfields. Corticosterone had no effect on neuropil volume or glial volume in the proximal subfield but caused a strong tendency for astrocytic processes to make up a larger proportion of the tissue and for volume of tissue made of constituents other than glial cells (primarily neuronal processes) to be smaller in the middle subfield. Within the neuropil, there were no cellular or subcellular profiles that indicated degeneration, suggesting that corticosterone does not cause prolonged damage. Corticosterone did not reduce cell number or cell or nonperforated synapse size but did cause a pronounced loss of synapses. This loss occurred in both subfields and, therefore, was independent of volume loss. Together, the findings suggest that volume measures can underestimate corticosterone effects on neural structure. J. Comp. Neurol. 498:363–374, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.