The present study utilized a newly developed quantitative immunohistochemical assay to measure changes in mu opioid receptor abundance following chronic administration of the opioid receptor antagonist naltrexone. These data were compared with those obtained from mu receptor radioligand binding on adjacent tissue sections, in order to determine whether the characteristic antagonist-induced increase in radioligand binding is due to an increase in the total number of mu receptors and/or to an increase in the proportion of receptors that are in an active binding conformation in the absence of a change in the total number of receptors. Adult male Sprague-Dawley rats were administered naltrexone, 7-8 mg/kg per day, or saline continuously for seven days by osmotic minipumps, after which time their brains were processed for immunohistochemistry and receptor autoradiography on adjacent fresh frozen tissue sections. Semiquantitative immunohistochemistry was performed using a radiolabelled secondary antibody for autoradiographic determination and a set of radioactive standards. Results demonstrate an overall concordance between the distribution of mu opioid receptors as measured by the two different methods with a few exceptions. Following naltrexone administration, mu receptor immunoreactivity was significantly higher in the amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, and interpeduncular nucleus as compared with the saline-treated control animals. [3H]D-Ala2,N-Me-Phe4,Gly-ol5-enkephalin binding to mu opioid receptors was significantly higher in the globus pallidus, amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, central gray, and interpeduncular nucleus of the naltrexone-treated rats. These findings indicate that in some brain regions chronic naltrexone exposure increases the total number of mu opioid receptors, while in other regions there is an increase in the percent of active receptors without an observable change in the total number of receptors. Quantitative receptor immunodetection together with ligand autoradiography provides a new approach for investigating the regulation of mu opioid receptors on tissue sections.