Organotypic cultures and ileal neuromuscular preparations were used to determine (i) whether endogenous release of opioids by electrical stimulation induces mu receptor endocytosis, and (ii) whether and under which conditions ligand-induced mu receptor endocytosis influences the responsiveness of neurons expressing native mu receptors. In longitudinal muscle-myenteric plexus preparations, electrical stimulation at 20 Hz induced a prominent endocytosis of mu receptors in enteric neurons, indicating endogenous release of opioids. A similar massive endocytosis was triggered by exogenous application of the mu receptor agonist, [D-Ala(2),MePhe(4), Gly-ol(5)] enkephalin, whereas exogenous application of morphine was ineffective. [D-Ala(2),MePhe(4),Gly-ol(5)] enkephalin and morphine induced a concentration-dependent inhibition of neurogenic cholinergic twitch contractions to electrical stimulation at 0.1 Hz. beta-Chlornaltrexamine shifted to the right the inhibitory curve of both agonists with a concentration-dependent reduction of the maximum agonist response, which is consistent with the existence of spare mu opioid receptors. Under these conditions, the induction of mu receptor endocytosis by exogenously applied [D-Ala(2), MePhe(4),Gly-ol(5)] enkephalin diminished the inhibitory effect of this agonist on twitch contractions and tritiated acetylcholine release. In contrast, there was no reduction of the inhibitory effect of morphine, which failed to induce mu receptor endocytosis, on neurogenic cholinergic response. These results provide the first evidence for the occurrence of mu receptor endocytosis in neurons by endogenously released opioids and show that agonist-dependent mu receptor endocytosis could serve as a mechanism to regulate mu opioid receptor responsiveness to ligand stimulation when the opioid receptor reserve is reduced.