The mu-opioid agonist DAMGO (Tyr-D-Ala-Gly-MePhe-Gly-ol) hyperpolarizes the majority of arcuate hypothalamic (ARC) neurons by opening an inwardly rectifying potassium conductance. The EC50 for the DAMGO- induced hyperpolarization was 60 +/- 3 nM in ARC neurons from ovariectomized guinea pigs. Superfusion of 17 beta-estradiol (E2; 100 nM) for 20 min in vitro resulted in a significant decrease in DAMGO potency (EC50 = 212 +/- 16 nM) in 40% of the neurons that were tested. This rapid effect of E2 on the mu-opioid response was not mimicked by the biologically inactive isomer 17 alpha-estradiol. Multiple concentrations of E2 were used to generate an E2 concentration-response curve, with an EC50 of 9 nM and a maximal increase in the DAMGO EX50 of 411% of controls. The membrane properties and firing rate of E2- sensitive and E2-insensitive neurons were not different. Streptavidin- FITC labeling did not reveal any significant morphological differences between the groups, but a higher number of E2-sensitive cells was found in the lateral ARC and cell-poor zone. Moreover, immunocytochemical staining of the recorded cells revealed that beta-endorphin neurons were among those sensitive to E2. Therefore, E2 could increase beta- endorphin release by decreasing the potency of beta-endorphinergic autoinhibition, thus increasing the tonic opioid inhibition of E2- insensitive cells. Furthermore, the diffuse projections of hypothalamic beta-endorphin neurons would allow E2 to alter processes throughout the brain, as well as having local effects in the hypothalamus.