A combination of intracellular electrophysiological recording and injection of horseradish peroxidase with ultrastructural immunocytochemistry was used to investigate the synaptic interplay between substance P- and enkephalin-immunoreactive axonal boutons and three types of functionally characterized dorsal horn neurons in the cat spinal cord. The dorsal horn neurons were classified as nociceptive specific, wide dynamic range and non-nociceptive based on their responses to innocuous and noxious stimuli. Most of the nociceptive neurons (either nociceptive specific or wide dynamic range) contained enkephalin immunoreactivity, but none of the non-nociceptive neurons were positive for enkephalin. Three types of immunoreactive boutons were found in contact with the functionally characterized dorsal horn neurons. These boutons were positive for either substance P, enkephalin, or substance P+enkephalin. Quantitative analysis revealed that the percentages of substance P-immunoreactive boutons apposed to the cell bodies, proximal dendrites and distal dendrites of nociceptive neurons were significantly higher than those of non-nociceptive neurons. Furthermore, the percentages of substance P+enkephalin-immunoreactive axonal boutons apposed to the distal dendrites of nociceptive neurons were significantly higher than those of non-nociceptive neurons and the percentages of enkephalin-immunoreactive boutons apposed to the cell bodies and proximal dendrites of nociceptive neurons were significantly higher than in non-nociceptive neurons. Finally, neither enkephalin-immunoreactive nor substance P+enkephalin-immunoreactive boutons were ever seen presynaptic to substance P-immunoreactive boutons. These results provide evidence of an anatomical substrate within the dorsal horn for the interaction of substance P-mediated with enkephalin-mediated mechanisms. The data support the idea that the modulation of nociceptive input in the dorsal horn by enkephalinergic neurons occurs mainly via a postsynaptic mechanism, and thus suggest that dorsal horn enkephalinergic neurons participate in a local inhibitory feedback loop in a distinct pathway from the previously postulated opioid-mediated depression of substance P release from primary afferent terminals.