The endogenous opioid peptides have been implicated in the control of the suckling-induced PRL rise during lactation. This study examined the role of the endogenous opioid peptides in suppressing tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic neuronal activity during lactation. In the first experiment, lactating rats were constantly exposed to pups. Naloxone (NAL; 60 mg/kg x h; i.v.), an opioid receptor antagonist, or saline was infused for 12 h. Blood was collected before and at 2-h intervals during the infusion. NAL suppressed circulating PRL levels to less than 36% of control values at 4, 6, 8, and 12 h after the onset of the infusion. Tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) activity in the stalk-median eminence and TH messenger RNA signal levels in the arcuate nucleus were determined at the end of the NAL infusion. TH activity and TH messenger RNA signal levels were increased 2.5- and 2.7-fold, respectively, after the 12-h NAL infusion. Even though the time spent with their pups was similar between the two groups, the pups in the NAL-treated group failed to gain weight during the 12-h NAL infusion period, whereas the control litters (8 pups) gained 5 g. In a second experiment, pups were removed from the dams before the 12-h NAL infusion and were returned after 11 h. Blood was collected before the infusion, at 3-h intervals during the pup separation period, and at 15-min intervals after reunion with the pups. Plasma PRL in control and NAL-treated rats was low (1-15 ng/ml) and similar during the separation period. The suckling-induced PRL surge in NAL-treated rats was markedly attenuated to 9-25% of control levels (350-650 ng/ml). After a 1-h suckling episode, TH activity in the stalk-median eminence of NAL-treated rats was 4.5-fold greater than controls. Litter weight gains were significantly less in NAL-treated rats during the 1-h suckling episode. These data indicate that the endogenous opioid peptides are an integral component for increasing PRL release in response to suckling and they act to decrease tuberoinfundibular dopaminergic neuronal activity during lactation, in part, by suppressing TH gene expression.