Many of the analgesic effects of opiate drugs and of endogenous opioid ligands, such as Leu5-enkephalin (LE) are thought to be mediated in part by mu-opioid receptors (MOR) in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. To establish the cellular sites for the spinally mediated analgesic effects of MOR activation and the potential anatomical substrates for interactions with LE, we examined the ultrastructural localization of MOR and LE immunoreactivities in the adult rat cervical spinal cord (C3-C5). Anti-MOR sera recognizing the carboxyl terminal domain of MOR was localized using immunoperoxidase and immunogold-silver methods. mu-opioid receptor-like immunoreactivity (MOR-LI) was observed mainly in the superficial layers of the dorsal horn. Electron microscopy of this region revealed that small unmyelinated axons and axon terminals constituted 48% (91/189) and 15% (28/189), respectively, while dendrites comprised 36% (68/189) of the total population of neuronal profiles containing the MOR. MOR-LI was localized mainly along extrasynaptic portions of the plasma membrane in both axons and dendrites. In sections dually labeled for MOR and LE, 21% (14/68) of the dendrites containing MOR-LI closely apposed or received synaptic contact from axon terminals exhibiting LE reaction product. The results provide the first ultrastructural evidence that within the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, LE, as well as exogenous opiates may alter both axonal release of neurotransmitters and postsynaptic responsiveness of target neurons to afferent input through activation of extrasynaptic MOR.