Endogenous opioids stimulate PRL release in the rat during proestrus, stress, and lactation. This study investigated the potential role of opioids in regulating the daily nocturnal PRL surges that occur during the first half of pregnancy. On day 8 of pregnancy, infusion of naloxone (NAL; 0.25, 1.0, or 2.0 mg/10 min), an opioid receptor antagonist, from 0100-0400 h blocked the nocturnal surge in a dose-dependent manner. PRL remained at basal levels throughout the infusion when the highest dose of NAL was used. A PRL surge was still present in this group, but its delayed onset occurred 1 h after termination of the NAL infusion. In another experiment NAL was used to determine whether opioids are needed to maintain the nocturnal surge or only to initiate the surge. On day 8 of pregnancy, infusion of NAL (2.0 mg/10 min) was started at 0300 h, after initiation of the surge had occurred, and was continued until 0600 h. After 1 h of infusion, PRL levels were less than 20 ng/ml, compared to more than 200 ng/ml in controls (P less than 0.002) and remained low. A PRL surge occurred approximately 2-3 h after the infusion was discontinued, at a time when the surge was completed in controls (P less than 0.01). Experimental animals did not differ in their surges relative to controls on the next day when no infusion was given. Another set of experiments was performed to determine whether blockade of endogenous opioids inhibited the nocturnal PRL surge by stimulating tuberoinfundibular dopamine (TIDA) neurons. Day 8 pregnant rats infused with NAL (2.0 mg/10 min) from 0100-0400 h demonstrated no nocturnal PRL surge. Subsequently, the medial basal hypothalamus in NAL-treated animals and saline controls was incubated in vitro with the DOPA decarboxylase inhibitor brocresine (100 microM). The greater amount of resultant DOPA accumulation in the stalk median eminence of NAL-treated animals reflected increased TIDA neuronal activity compared to that in SAL-infused controls. Similar results were obtained when rats were treated in vivo with the DOPA decarboxylase inhibitor NSD 1015 (25 mg/kg BW) just before termination of the NAL infusion. Based on these results, we conclude that endogenous opioid peptides are essential in initiating and maintaining nocturnal PRL surges in pregnant rats. Moreover, opioids appear to exert their effects by decreasing TIDA neuronal activity.