The effect of dexamethasone on acute opiate withdrawal induced by mu, kappa and delta receptor agonists was investigated in vitro. After a 4-min in vitro exposure to morphine (less selective mu agonist), D-Ala2-N-methyl-Phe4-Gly5-ol)-enkephalin (DAGO; highly selective mu agonist) and trans(+/-)-3,4-dichloro-N-methyl-N-[2(1-pyrrolidynyl)cyclohexyl]- benzeneacetamide (U50-488H; highly selective kappa agonist) a strong contracture of guinea pig isolated ileum was observed after the addition of naloxone. This effect was also observed when rabbit isolated jejunum was pretreated with deltorphin (highly selective delta agonist). Dexamethasone treatment before or after the opioid agonists tested was capable of both preventing and reverting the naloxone-induced contracture after exposure to mu opiate agonists morphine and DAGO in a concentration- and time-dependent fashion. Also, the steroid reduced naloxone-induced contracture after the exposure to U50-488H only when injected before the kappa opiate agonist. Finally, it did not affect the naloxone contracture after exposure to deltorphin. Pretreatment with RU-38486, a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, inhibited dexamethasone antagonism on responses to both mu and kappa agonists, whereas pretreatment with cycloheximide, a protein synthesis inhibitor, blocked only the antagonistic effects of dexamethasone on responses to the mu opioid agonists. Overall, these data indicate that dexamethasone induces significant effects on mu-mediated opiate with-drawal in vitro, which suggest an important functional interaction between corticosteroids and the opioid system primarily at the mu receptor level. The ability of RU-38486 and cycloheximide to block dexamethasone effects indicates that the steroid interference on mu-mediated withdrawal involves a protein synthesis-dependent mechanism via glucocorticoid receptor.