Chronic administration of mu-opioid receptor agonists is known to produce adaptive changes within noradrenergic neurons of the locus coeruleus. Although mu-opioid receptors are densely expressed by locus coeruleus neurons, the effects of acute and chronic administration of agonists on the subcellular distribution of mu-opioid receptors remain poorly understood. Therefore, we examined the ultrastructural distribution of mu-opioid receptor immunoreactivity in the locus coeruleus of rats subjected to either acute morphine, or etorphine, or chronic morphine treatment. In the locus coeruleus of control rats receiving acute saline injections or placebo pellet implants, immunogold-silver labeling for mu-opioid receptors was localized to parasynaptic and extrasynaptic portions of the plasma membranes of perikarya and dendrites. Only 8% of the gold-silver particles analyzed were distributed within the cytoplasm of dendrites and perikarya in vehicle-treated rats. Immunolabeling for mu-opioid receptors was distributed along portions of the plasma membrane that were often apposed by astroglial sheaths. After acute injections of etorphine, there was a dramatic internalization of mu-opioid receptors to intracellular compartments. Quantitative analysis of gold-silver particles indicative of mu-opioid receptors showed that a substantial number of gold particles shifted from the plasma membrane to early endosomes in dendrites from etorphine-treated rats. In dendrites sampled from etorphine-treated rats, 85% of the gold-silver grains indicative of mu-opioid receptor labeling were located in intracellular compartments as compared to 15% that were distributed along the plasma membrane. In animals that received either acute morphine injections or chronic morphine via pellet implantation, no change in the subcellular distribution of immunogold particles indicative of mu-opioid receptors was detected when compared to matched control animals. These results provide the first ultrastructural evidence that mu-opioid receptors are internalized by agonists such as etorphine, but not the partial agonist morphine, in the locus coeruleus.