Blockade of spinal glycinergic inhibition with intrathecal (i.t.) strychnine induces a reversible allodynia-like state in both conscious and lightly-anaesthetized rats. Since the locus coeruleus (LC) is activated by noxious stimuli, we determined the effect of non-noxious hair deflection (HD) on noradrenergic neuronal activity in the LC of rats treated with i.t. strychnine. Differential normal pulse voltammetry was used to measure the catechol oxidation current (CA.OC), an index of LC activity. Rats were maintained in a light plane of anaesthesia with i.v. urethane and i.t. strychnine (40 micrograms) was injected near the L1-L2 segment. HD, applied to the caudal dermatomes affected by i.t. strychnine, evoked a significant increase (max. 141 +/- 7%, n = 5, P < 0.05) in CA.OC and mean arterial pressure as compared to baseline (no strychnine). In contrast, HD had no significant effect on CA.OC or mean arterial pressure in the saline-treated rats (n = 5). Pre-treatment with i.t. MK801 (30 micrograms) significantly blocked the increase in CA.OC and mean arterial pressure evoked by HD in strychnine-treated rats. The results of this study indicated that HD, in the presence of i.t. strychnine but not saline, can evoke noradrenergic activity in the LC of lightly anaesthetized rats. This effect on the LC is: (1) comparable to that observed with noxious stimulation without i.t. strychnine; (2) segmentally localized, corresponding to the spinal site of strychnine injection; and (3) mediated by spinal NMDA receptors, consistent with the role of excitatory amino acids in sensory transmission. These data provide the first neurochemical evidence that HD, in the presence of i.t. strychnine, is a nociceptive event, supporting the use of this preparation as an experimental model of allodynia.