Stress induces the release of the peptide corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) into the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and also increases dopamine levels in brain regions receiving dense VTA input. Therefore, stress may activate the mesolimbic dopamine system in part through the actions of CRF in the VTA. Here, we explored the mechanism by which CRF affects VTA dopamine neuron firing. Using patch-clamp recordings from brain slices we first determined that the presence of Ih is an excellent predictor of dopamine content in mice. We next showed that CRF dose-dependently increased VTA dopamine neuron firing, which was prevented by antagonism of the CRF receptor-1 (CRF-R1), and was mimicked by CRF-R1 agonists. Inhibition of the phospholipase C (PLC)–protein kinase C (PKC) signalling pathway, but not the cAMP–protein kinase A (PKA) signalling pathway, prevented the increase in dopamine neuron firing by CRF. Furthermore, the effect of CRF on VTA dopamine neurons was not attenuated by blockade of IA, IK(Ca) or IKir, but was completely eliminated by inhibition of Ih. Although cAMP-dependent modulation of Ih through changes in the voltage dependence of activation is well established, we surprisingly found that CRF, through a PKC-dependent mechanism, enhanced Ih independent of changes in the voltage dependence of activation. Thus, our results demonstrated that CRF acted on the CRF-R1 to stimulate the PLC–PKC signalling pathway, which in turn enhanced Ih to increase VTA dopamine neuron firing. These findings provide a cellular mechanism of the interaction between CRF and dopamine, which can be involved in promoting the avoidance of threatening stimuli, the pursuit of appetitive behaviours, as well as various psychiatric conditions.