Given the findings that (1) systemic opioid antinociception varies by estrous stage in females and (2) the magnitude of sex differences in opioid antinociception is negatively correlated with opioid agonist efficacy, we hypothesized that sex differences in the function of the descending pain modulatory system are likely influenced by estrous stage in females and by the number of available opioid receptors therein. The present study tested these hypotheses by (1) comparing antinociception produced by morphine microinjection to the ventral periaqueductal gray (vPAG) in females at different stages of the estrous cycle and (2) examining systemic morphine antinociception in males versus females under conditions of reduced vPAG mu opioid receptor availability. When estrous stage of females was not controlled for (Experiment 1), there was no significant sex difference in tail withdrawal antinociception following morphine microinjection (0.3-10microg), although morphine was more potent in males than females in producing immobility. Experiment 2 showed that intra-vPAG morphine produced less antinociception and immobility in estrus than in diestrus females; that is, only estrus females' response to morphine was lower than that of males. Experiment 3 showed that microinjection of the irreversible mu opioid antagonist beta-funaltrexamine (beta-FNA) into the vPAG shifted the systemic morphine dose-effect curve farther to the right in females than in males. That is, a reduction in available vPAG mu opioid receptors had a greater impact on opioid antinociception in females than in males, suggesting that females have fewer vPAG mu opioid receptors than males. Overall, these data suggest that ovarian hormones and PAG mu opioid receptor density contribute to sex differences in antinociception produced by morphine.