The CNS contains a putative cannabinergic neurotransmitter and an abundance of G-protein-coupled cannabinoid receptors. However, little is known about the function of this novel neurochemical system. Cannabinold agonists produce antinociception in behavioral tests, suggesting the possibility that this system serves in part to modulate pain sensitivity. To explore this possibility, the effects of the cannabinoid agonist WIN 55,212-2 on nociceptive neurons in the ventroposterolateral (VPL) nucleus of the thalamus were examined in urethane-anesthetized rats. After identification of a nociresponsive neuron, a computer-controlled device delivered graded pressure stimuli to the contralateral hindpaw. WIN 55,212-2 (0.0625, 0.125, and 0.25 mg/kg, i.v.) suppressed noxious stimulus-evoked activity of VPL neurons in a dose-dependent and reversible manner. Noxious stimulus-evoked firing was affected more than spontaneous firing. These effects were apparently mediated by cannabinoid receptors, because the cannabinoid receptor-inactive enantiomer of the drug (WIN 55,212-3, 0.25 mg/kg) failed to alter the activity of this population of cells. Administration of morphine (0.5 mg/kg, i.v.) produced effects that were very similar to those produced by the cannabinoid. WIN 55,212-2 (0.25 mg/kg, i.v.) failed to alter the responses of non-nociceptive low-threshold mechanosensitive neurons in the VPL WIN 55,212-2 produced antinociceptive effects with a potency and time course similar to that observed in the electrophysiological experiments, despite the differences in the anesthetic states of the animals used in these experiments. The antinociceptive and electrophysiological effects on VPL neurons outlasted the motor effects of the drug. Furthermore, the changes in nociceptive responding could not be attributed to changes in skin temperature. Taken together, these findings suggest that cannabinoids decrease nociceptive neurotransmission at the level of the thalamus and that one function of endogenous cannabinoids may be to modulate pain sensitivity.