Agonist-induced down-regulation of opioid receptors appears to require the phosphorylation of the receptor protein. However, the identities of the specific protein kinases that perform this task remain uncertain. Protein kinase C (PKC) has been shown to catalyze the phosphorylation of several G protein-coupled receptors and potentiate their desensitization toward agonists. However, it is unknown whether opioid receptor agonists induce PKC activation under physiological conditions. Using cultured SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells, which naturally express mu- and delta-opioid receptors, we investigated whether mu-opioid receptor agonists can activate PKC by measuring enzyme translocation to the membrane fraction. PKC translocation and opioid receptor densities were simultaneously measured by 3H-phorbol ester and [3H]diprenorphine binding, respectively, to correlate alterations in PKC localization with changes in receptor binding sites. We observed that mu-opioid agonists have a dual effect on membrane PKC density depending on the period of drug exposure. Exposure for 2-6 h to [D-Ala2,N-Me-Phe4,Gly-ol]enkephalin or morphine promotes the translocation of PKC from the cytosol to the plasma membrane. Longer periods of opioid exposure (>12 h) produce a decrease in membrane-bound PKC density to a level well below basal. A significant decrease in [3H]diprenorphine binding sites is first observed at 2 h and continues to decline through the last time point measured (48 h). The opioid receptor antagonist naloxone attenuated both opioid-mediated PKC translocation and receptor down-regulation. These results demonstrate that opioids are capable of activating PKC, as evidenced by enhanced translocation of the enzyme to the cell membrane, and this finding suggests that PKC may have a physiological role in opioid receptor plasticity.