Stressful stimuli strongly induce proenkephalin gene expression within the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus. A human proenkephalin-beta-galactosidase fusion gene has previously been shown to give correct phenotypic expression and appropriate stress regulation within the hypothalamus of transgenic mice; this model provides high sensitivity, cellular resolution, and ready quantification of levels of proenkephalin gene expression. Here we describe use of this transgenic model to study modulation of stress-regulated gene expression in the PVN by opiates. Acute or subacute morphine administration prior to a hypertonic saline stress produced marked superinduction of transgene expression compared with hypertonic saline stress alone. In contrast, chronic morphine administration decreased basal expression of the transgene, and inhibited stress-induced expression of the transgene. The endogenous proenkephalin mRNA was induced in parallel with the transgene as demonstrated by in situ hybridization; the immediate-early gene c-fos was also regulated in parallel with the transgene. These data suggest that acute or subacute morphine administration sensitizes proenkephalin neurons within the PVN and other regions of the hypothalamus to stress and that chronic morphine administration desensitizes this response. Because the molecular mechanisms regulating the expression of the transgene are well understood, this model provides a useful tool for investigating cellular and molecular effects of opioids on the hypothalamus.