Pharmacological approaches have defined the epsilon receptor as a beta-endorphin-preferring opioid receptor, described in rat vas deferens and in brain of several species. Only three opioid receptors-mu, delta and kappa-have been cloned and the existence of this additional subtype as a distinct protein remains controversial. Recently, the mouse brain epsilon receptor was detected in a G protein activation assay, as mediating residual beta-endorphin activity following pharmacological blockade of mu, delta and kappa receptors. To clarify whether this site is independent from mu, delta and kappa receptors, we performed beta-endorphin-induced [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding using mice lacking these three receptors (triple knockout mice). We tested both pons-medulla and whole brain preparations. beta-Endorphin strongly stimulated [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding in wild-type membranes but had no detectable effect in membranes from triple knockout mice. We conclude that the brain epsilon site involves mu, delta and/or kappa receptors, possibly coupled to nonclassical G proteins.