In 71 halothane-anesthetized rats, we characterized the responses of single neurons in the nucleus ventroposterolateralis (VPL) of the thalamus to a noxious visceral stimulus (colorectal balloon distension; CRD) and studied the effects of intravenous morphine on these responses using standard extracellular microelectrode recording techniques. One hundred nine neurons were isolated on the basis of spontaneous activity. Sixty-four (59%) responded to CRD, of which 52 (81%) had excitatory and 12 (19%) had inhibitory responses. Neurons showed graded responses to graded CRD pressures (20-100 mmHg), with maximum excitation or inhibition occurring at 80 mmHg. Responses to noxious (pinch, heat) and innocuous (brush, tap) cutaneous stimuli were studied in 95 of the VPL neurons isolated. Eighty-three of these neurons (48 CRD responsive and 35 CRD nonresponsive) (87%) had cutaneous receptive fields, of which 96% were small and contralateral and 4% were large and contralateral or bilateral. Ninety-four percent of these neurons responded to both noxious and innocuous cutaneous stimulation, and 6% responded to only noxious stimulation. No neurons responded solely to innocuous stimulation. Cumulative doses of morphine (0.125, 0.25, 0.5, 1, and 2 mg/kg, i.v) produced statistically significant dose-dependent attenuation of neuronal responses to CRD. Naloxone (0.4 mg/kg, i.v.) reversed the effects of morphine. Morphine and naloxone had no significant effects on spontaneous activity. These data support the involvement of VPL neurons in visceral nociception and are consistent with a role of VPL in sensory-discriminative aspects of nociception.