Single cell evoked activity was recorded from spinal cord interneurons in rats prepared with microinjection cannulae or stimulating electrodes in the periaqueductal central gray matter (PAG). Morphine microinjections (4-16 microgram) inhibited the response evoked by a noxious stimulus in 55% of the wide dynamic range neurons tested. Microinjections of etorphine (0.25-0.5 microgram) inhibited 82% of the nociceptive neurons tested. Neither drug inhibited neurons which responded only to innocuous mechanical stimulation. The inhibition of wide dynamic range neurons produced by narcotic microinjection was antagonized by naloxone (1 mg/kg, i.p.) in 7 of 11 cases. Control experiments indicated that the effects obtained with microinjections could not be attributed to the drugs' diffusion to the spinal cord. Focal electrical stimulation of the PAG inhibited the responses to noxious stimuli of 60% of wide dynamic range neurons but was without effect on the responses of neurons that were activated only by innocuous stimuli. These experiments directly demonstrate that narcotic analgesics restricted to an intracerebral site of action activate a neural system which preferentially inhibits the responses of spinal cord wide dynamic range neurons to noxious stimuli. The system has a specificity for nociceptive input since non-nociceptive neurons were unaffected. Directly comparable results were produced by electrical stimulation of the PAG, supporting the concept that stimulation and narcotics modulate the transmission of nociceptive information by similar mechanisms.