Dendritic spines are important sites of excitatory neurotransmission in the brain with their function determined by their structure and molecular content. Alterations in spine number, morphology and receptor content are a hallmark of many psychiatric disorders, most notably those because of stress. We investigated the role of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) stress peptides on the plasticity of spines in the cerebellum, a structure implicated in a host of mental illnesses, particularly of a developmental origin. We used organotypic slice cultures of the cerebellum and restraint stress in behaving animals to determine whether CRF in vitro and stress in vivo affects Purkinje cell (PC) spine density. Application of CRF and urocortin (UCN) to cerebellar slice cultures increased the density of spines on PC signaling via CRF receptors (CRF-Rs) 1 and 2 and RhoA downregulation, although the structural phenotypes of the induced spines varied, suggesting that CRF-Rs differentially induce the outgrowth of functionally distinct populations of spines. Furthermore, CRF and UCN exert a trophic effect on the surface contact between synaptic elements by increasing active zones and postsynaptic densities and facilitating the alignment of pre- and post-synaptic membranes of synapses on PCs. In addition, 1 h of restraint stress significantly increased PC spine density compared with those animals that were only handled. This study provides unprecedented resolution of CRF pathways that regulate the structural machinery essential for synaptic transmission and provides a basis for understanding stress-induced mental illnesses.