Migraine headache is thought to be caused by a distension of meningeal blood vessels, the activation of trigeminal sensory neurones and the the development of a central sensitization within the trigeminal nucleus caudalis (TNC). It has been proposed that clinically effective 5-HT(1B/1D) agonists act peripherally to inhibit the release of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and neurogenic dural vasodilation, and to attenuate nociceptive neurotransmission within the TNC. Since opioids are also effective anti-migraine agents the present studies investigated the role of opioids within the trigemino-vascular system in anaesthetised rats. Electrical stimulation of the dura mater evoked neurogenic dural vasodilation which was significantly inhibited by morphine (1 mg kg(-1)) the selective mu-opioid agonist DAGO (10 microg kg(-1)) and the mixed agonist/antagonist butorphanol (1 mg kg(-1)) but not by the kappa- and delta-opioid agonists (+/-) U50488H (100 microg kg(-1)) and DPDPE (1 mg kg(-1)). Morphine had no effect on CGRP-evoked dural vasodilation. In electrophysiological studies morphine (1 - 10 mg kg(-1)) significantly attenuated brainstem neuronal activity in response to electrical stimulation of the dura by 65% at 10 mg kg(-1). Morphine (3 mg kg(-1)) also inhibited the TNC neuronal sensitization following CGRP-evoked dilation. The present studies have demonstrated that opioids block the nociceptive neurotransmission within the trigeminal nucleus caudalis and in addition inhibit neurogenic dural vasodilation via an action on mu-opioid receptors located on trigeminal sensory fibres innervating dural blood vessels. These peripheral and central actions are similar to those of the 'triptan' 5-HT(1B/1D) agonists and could account for the anti-migraine actions of opioids.