Extracellular discharges of neurons in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) were recorded from slices of rat hypothalamus in vitro. PVN neurons (n = 14) were identified by the criteria of (i) phasic activity patterns and (ii) antidromic invasion from the neurohypophysial tract. Neurons not displaying either of these features were considered unidentified with respect to physiological function (n = 85). The majority of unidentified neurons responded to bath application of morphine (1 microM), [D-Ala2,Met5]enkephalin (1 microM) or beta-endorphin (0.01-1 microM) with a prompt, reversible, dose-related reduction in spike discharge frequency. Naloxone (1 microM) antagonized the opioid-induced depressions in some, but not all, cases. At the concentrations tested, no tachyphylaxis to the effects of the opioids was observed. The opioid effects on putative neurohypophysial neurons were less pronounced; while 2 were depressed, the remaining 12 displayed no change in frequency or pattern of discharge to micromolar concentrations of morphine, [D-Ala2,Met5]enkephalin, or beta-endorphin. Our results indicate that opioids depress neuronal activity in the rat PVN via an interaction with a specific opiate receptor but that this effect is more pronounced on unidentified neurons than on putative neurohypophysial neurons in the slice.