We have analyzed by radiometric procedures in rat central nervous system the changes in the properties of mu-opioid receptors associated with tolerance and supersensitivity to the opioid agonist sufentanil. This study has used [3H]-[D-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly- (ol)5(2)]-enkephalin, a highly selective ligand, to label mu-opioid receptors in both membranes and tissue sections. The induction of opioid tolerance by chronic infusion for 7 days of high doses of sufentanil, a high efficacy agonist, produced mu-opioid receptor down-regulation, with a significant decrease in their density in both cortical (-67%) and spinal cord membranes (-55%) and no changes in the affinity constant. Autoradiographic studies showed an overall decrease of[3H]-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly-(ol)5(2)]-enkephalin binding in the somatosensory cortex (around -30%). When the dihydropyridine-Ca++ channel antagonist nimodipine was administered alone for 7 days, no significant changes in the density or affinity constant of mu-opioid receptors were observed. However, the chronic and simultaneous administration of nimodipine and sufentanil (7 days), induced a pronounced modification on the density of mu-opioid receptors of the rat central nervous system and blocked the down-regulation observed in sufentanil-treated (tolerant) rats. These neurochemical findings may account for the functional interaction we have observed previously in the analgesic studies between nimodipine and sufentanil. Our data strongly suggest a functional role of L-type Ca++ channels in the mediation of opioid tolerance and super-sensitivity.