The efflux transporter P-glycoprotein (P-gp) is an important component of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) that limits accumulation of many compounds in brain. Some opioids have been shown to interact with P-gp in vitro and in vivo. Genetic or chemical disruption of P-gp has been shown to enhance the antinociceptive and/or toxic effects of some opioids, although the extent of this phenomenon has yet to be understood. The purpose of this study was to assess quantitatively the influence of mdr1a P-gp on initial brain uptake of chemically diverse opioids in mice. The brain uptake of opioids selective for the mu (fentanyl, loperamide, meperidine, methadone, and morphine), delta (deltorphin II, DPDPE, naltrindole, SNC 121) and kappa (bremazocine and U-69593) receptor subtypes was determined in P-gp-competent (wild-type) and P-gp-deficient [mdr1a(-/-)] mice with an in situ brain perfusion model. BBB permeability of the opioids varied by several orders of magnitude in both mouse strains. The difference in brain uptake between P-gp-competent and P-gp-deficient mice ranged from no detectable effect (meperidine) to >/=8-fold increase in uptake (DPDPE, loperamide, and SNC 121). In addition, loperamide efflux at the BBB was inhibited by quinidine. These results demonstrate that P-gp modulation of opioid brain uptake varies substantially within this class of compounds, regardless of receptor subtype. P-gp-mediated efflux of opioids at the BBB may influence the onset, magnitude, and duration of analgesic response. The variable influence of P-gp on opioid brain distribution may be an important issue in the context of pharmacologic pain control and drug interactions.