Opioid receptor agonists are known to alter the activity of membrane ionic conductances and receptor-activated channels in CNS neurons and, via these mechanisms, to modulate neuronal excitability and synaptic transmission. In neuronal-like cell lines opioids also have been reported to induce intracellular Ca(2+) signals and to alter Ca(2+) signals evoked by membrane depolarization; these effects on intracellular Ca(2+) may provide an additional mechanism through which opioids modulate neuronal activity. However, opioid effects on resting or stimulated intracellular Ca(2+) levels have not been demonstrated in native CNS neurons. Thus, we investigated opioid effects on intracellular Ca(2+) in cultured rat hippocampal neurons by using fura-2-based microscopic Ca(2+) imaging. The opioid receptor agonist D-Ala(2)-N-Me-Phe(4),Gly-ol(5)-enkephalin (DAMGO; 1 microM) dramatically increased the amplitude of spontaneous intracellular Ca(2+) oscillations in the hippocampal neurons, with synchronization of the Ca(2+) oscillations across neurons in a given field. The effects of DAMGO were blocked by the opioid receptor antagonist naloxone (1 microM) and were dependent on functional NMDA receptors and L-type Ca(2+) channels. In parallel whole-cell recordings, DAMGO enhanced spontaneous, synaptically driven NMDA receptor-mediated burst events, depolarizing responses to exogenous NMDA and current-evoked Ca(2+) spikes. These results show that the activation of opioid receptors can augment several components of neuronal Ca(2+) signaling pathways significantly and, as a consequence, enhance intracellular Ca(2+) signals. These results provide evidence of a novel neuronal mechanism of opioid action on CNS neuronal networks that may contribute to both short- and long-term effects of opioids.