The density and distribution of mu- and kappa-opiate receptors in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of male and female rats across the estrous cycle was examined using quantitative in vitro autoradiography of [3H]D-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly-ol5-enkephalin (DAGO), [3H]naloxone and [3H]bremazocine binding. While no difference in kappa-receptor labeling was observed across sex or estrous stage, selective mu-receptor labeling with [3H]DAGO revealed a significant variation of density and distribution in the MPOA across the estrous cycle and between sexes. A dense concentration of mu-receptors located in the central, sexually dimorphic portion of the MPOA was observed during metestrus and diestrus in females, but not during proestrus nor in males. This region appeared to be the same as that labeled similarly using [3H]naloxone. These results suggest that a regional substrate for functional activation by endogenous opioid peptides (e.g. beta-endorphin) is cyclically regulated in females, which may explain the gonadal steroid-dependent effects of MPOA beta-endorphin on lordosis and luteinizing hormone secretion in females.