In the present study, the minimal fragment sequence required to fully activate the nociceptin (NC) receptor, namely NC(1-13)-NH2, was used as template for the design of a series of new compounds. Changes were made in the N-terminal tetrapeptide Phe-Gly-Gly-Phe, which has been shown to be essential for receptor occupation and activation. The new compounds were tested for their ability to inhibit the electrically evoked contraction of the mouse vas deferens, a pharmacological preparation sensitive to NC. Results obtained indicate that (a) the replacement of Gly2 or Gly3 with an aromatic residue (Phe) of L or D chirality eliminates the ability of the peptide to occupy the NC receptor; (b) the distance between Phe1 and Phe4 of NC appears to be critical, since any alteration of it leads to a marked decrease or a total elimination of biological activity; and (c) the insertion of a pseudopeptide bond between Phe1 and Gly2 maintains affinity but eliminates the ability of the peptide to activate the NC receptor and leads to antagonism. The peptide [Phe1psi(CH2-NH)Gly2]-NC(1-13)-NH2 acts as a selective NC receptor antagonist and is inactive on opioid receptors. The results summarized in this paper confirm and extend our previous findings by showing that the structural requirements for NC binding to its receptor are clearly different from those of opioids; in addition, this structure-activity study has led to the identification of the first NC receptor selective antagonist.