In order to investigate the relative role of central delta- and mu- opioid receptors in behavior, the effects of (D-Ala2)deltorphin II, a natural delta-opioid peptide, and PL017, a beta-casomorphin derivative specific for mu receptors, were compared after local intracerebral and intraventricular administration. Intracerebral infusion of the two peptides was done bilaterally in the limbic nucleus accumbens and in the ventral and dorsal caudate putamen of freely moving rats through chronic intracerebral cannulas. After intra-accumbens infusion, the two peptides elicited marked but opposite behavioral effects: while (D- Ala2)deltorphin II evoked dose-dependent motor stimulation characterized by locomotion, sniffing, and oral stereotypies, PL017 elicited motor inhibition with rigidity and catalepsy. These effects were site specific because they could not be evoked from the ventral or from the dorsal caudate. Low doses of naloxone (0.1 mg/kg, s.c.) blocked the effects of PL017 but not those of (D-Ala2)deltorphin II, which instead were reduced by high doses of naloxone (1.0 mg/kg) and by the putative delta-antagonist naltrindole; this drug failed to affect the catalepsy induced by PL017. Therefore, while (D-Ala2)deltorphin II effects were delta-mediated, PL017 effects were mu-mediated. Blockade of dopamine D1 receptors by SCH 23390 abolished (D-Ala2)deltorphin II effects, while blockade of dopamine D2 receptors by raclopride or by haloperidol was without effect. Local application by reverse dialysis of (D-Ala2)deltorphin II (5 microM) to the accumbens resulted in a naloxone-sensitive increase of extracellular dopamine concentrations; these effects could not be evoked from the caudate, nor by PL017 in the accumbens. Intracerebroventricular administration of (D-Ala2)deltorphin II or of PL017 elicited behavioral effects qualitatively similar to those obtained from the accumbens.