The aim of this study was to analyse the biochemical and behavioural consequences of chronic treatment with opioid receptor antagonists in rats. We have evaluated the respiratory depressant and antinociceptive effects of the mu-opioid agonist sufentanil, the density of brain mu-opioid receptors, and the expression of G-protein-coupled receptor kinases and beta-arrestin 2 in cerebral cortex and striatum, following sustained opioid receptor blockade. Our results demonstrate that 24 h after interruption of 7 days chronic infusion of naltrexone (120 microg/h), the respiratory depressant potency of the mu-opioid receptor agonist sufentanil was increased to a similar extent as the antinociceptive potency (about three-fold). This was accompanied by mu-opioid receptor up-regulation in several areas of the rat brain associated with opioid control of pain perception and breathing. Moreover, chronic treatment with either naltrexone (120 microg/h) or naloxone (120 microg/h) caused significant increases in the expression levels of G-protein-coupled receptor kinases types 2, 3, and 6, and of beta-arrestin 2 in brain cortex and striatum. Together our data suggest an increased constitutive receptor activity secondary to mu-opioid receptor up-regulation following chronic antagonist treatment.