In order to determine how brain beta-endorphin (beta-EP) and its precursor proopiomelanocortin (POMC) adapt to chronic opioid blockade we have examined the effects of treatment with the opioid receptor antagonist naltrexone (NTX) on POMC gene expression and peptide levels in the hypothalamus. Male rats were treated with NTX by daily injection or constant minipump infusion. RNA was isolated from the medial basal hypothalamus (MBH) after an aliquot was removed for peptide RIA and the amount of POMC mRNA was measured by solution hybridization SI nuclease protection assay. beta-EP and several other POMC-derived peptides including alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) and corticotropin-like intermediate lobe peptide (CLIP) or gamma(3)-MSH were measured in the MBH and anterior hypothalamus (AH) by RIA. In an initial experiment POMC peptide levels were measured after 7 days of NTX (4.8 mg/day) infusion. There was a marked fall in the concentrations of beta-EP, alpha-MSH, and CLIP; levels in the MBH declined by more than 60% (P < 0.001). In the next experiment NTX (1 mg) was injected daily and POMC peptides and mRNA were measured after 2 and 5 days of treatment. (beta-EP) and alpha-MSH levels fell progressively in the MBH and AH and were significantly less than those of the controls by 5 days of treatment (P < 0.02). POMC mRNA levels, however, did not change after 2 or 5 days. When NTX was infused for 3 weeks there was a decrease in the concentrations of beta-EP, alpha-MSH, and gamma(3)-MSH in the MBH (P < 0.001). The concentration of POMC mRNA in the MBH, however, was significantly higher in the NTX-treated animals, 0.99 +/- 0.06 pg/mug RNA vs 0.81 +/- 0.05 pg/mug RNA (P < 0.05). Since NTX can affect LH and testosterone release, the study was repeated in castrated rats. POMC peptide levels again fell after 3 weeks of NTX. POMC mRNA levels were higher in the castrated rats than in the intact rats, 1.14 +/- 0.06 pg/mug RNA vs 0.85 +/- 0.09 pg/mug RNA (P < 0.05), consistent with our previous findings in longterm castrated rats. However POMC mRNA increased further to 1.40 +/- 0.09 pg/mug RNA in the castrated animals treated with NTX (P < 0.05). We conclude that opioid receptor blockade has significant effects on POMC peptide levels and gene expression in the MBH. The increase in POMC gene expression associated with a fall in peptide levels is consistent with a compensatory increase in brain beta-EP synthesis and release in the setting of chronic opioid receptor blockade.