1. In this study we have examined the effects of nociceptin, an endogenous ligand for the opioid-like receptor ORL1 on the membrane properties of rat locus coeruleus (LC) neurones in vitro, using intracellular and whole cell patch clamp recording. 2. When locus coeruleus neurones were voltage clamped to -60 mV, application to nociceptin caused an outward current in all cells examined (n = 49), with an EC50 of 90 nM. Neither the potency nor the maximal effect of nociceptin was altered in the presence of the peptidase inhibitors, bestatin (20 microM) or thiorphan (2 microM). 3. The outward currents caused by nociceptin in 2.5 mM extracellular K+ reversed polarity at -123 mV, more negative than the predicted K+ reversal potential of -105 mV. Increasing extracellular K+ to 6.5 mM resulted in a shift of the reversal potential of +25 mV, a shift consistent with a K+ conductance. The conductance activated by nociceptin showed mild inward rectification. 4. Application of a high concentration of nociceptin (3 microM) occluded the current produced by simultaneous application of high concentrations of Met-enkephalin (10 microM), (3 microM) somatostatin and UK 14304 (3 microM), indicating that nociceptin activated the same conductance as mu-opioid and somatostatin receptors and alpha 2-adrenoceptors. 5. The actions of nociceptin were weakly antagonized by the opioid antagonist, naloxone, with pKb's estimated from 2 cells of -4.23 and -4.33. The mu-opioid antagonist, CTAP (D-Phe-Cys-Tyr-D-Trp-Arg-Pen-Thr-NH2, 1 microM), the opioid antagonist, nalorphine (30 microM) or the somatostatin antagonist, CPP (cyclo(7-aminoheptanoyl-Phe-D-Trp-Lys-Thr[Bz1]) 3 microM) did not affect the nociceptin-induced current. 6. Dynorphin A (microM), another putative endogenous ligand for ORL1, caused a robust outward current in locus coeruleus neurones that was, however, completely antagonized by moderate concentrations of naloxone (300 nM-1 microM). 7. Continuous application of nociceptin (3 microM) resulted in a decrease of the outward current to a steady level of 70% of the maximum response with a t1/2 of 120s. Desensitization was largely homologous because simultaneous application of Met-enkephalin (30 microM) during the desensitized period of the nociceptin response resulted in an outward current that was 92% of control responses to Met-enkephalin in the same cells. Conversely, continuous application of Met-enkephalin (30 microM) resulted in a decrease of Met-enkephalin current to a steady level that was 54% of the initial current. During this desensitized period application of nociceptin (3 microM) resulted in a current that was 78% of the control responses to nociceptin in the same cells. 8. Thus nociceptin potently activates an inwardly rectifying K+ conductance in locus coeruleus neurones, with a pharmacological profile consistent with activation of the ORL1 receptor. Dynorphin A does not appear to be a ligand for ORL1 in rat locus coeruleus neurones.