Upon differentiation with retinoic acid of the human neuroblastoma cells SH-SY5Y into mature neurons, opioid drugs become highly effective in suppressing prostaglandin E1 (50% inhibition)- and forskolin (70% inhibition)-stimulated adenylate cyclase activity, which was assessed by measuring cyclic AMP accumulation in intact cells. Whereas the SH-SY5Y cells carry both mu and delta receptors in a ratio of mu/delta approximately equal to 5/1, the response is predominantly mediated by the mu receptor. Morphine acts as a strong agonist with an EC50 of 50 to 100 nM which falls into the therapeutic range expected for narcotic analgesic effects mediated by the mu receptor. Narcotic analgesic drugs with only partial agonism fail to evoke full response, which suggests that this cell model could provide a rapid screening assay for narcotic analgesic efficacy. Continued exposure of the cells to morphine resulted in partial tolerance within 12 hr with a 4-fold shift of morphine's EC50 to higher concentrations, whereas longer morphine exposure did not cause any further shift. Thus, the differentiated SH-SY5Y cells provide a suitable system for studying the molecular mechanisms of the narcotic analgesics.