Conditions for the equilibrium binding to opioid receptor of [3H]sufentanil (mu selective), [3H][D-Pen2,D-Pen5]enkephalin (delta selective), and [3H]U69,593 (kappa selective) were established in membranes from rat brain cerebrum, monkey cortex, or guinea pig cerebellum. The selectivity index of various opioid alkaloids and peptides in binding to the mu, delta, or kappa opioid receptors was expressed as the ratio of their EC50 values in displacing two selective radiolabeled ligands: [3H]sufentanil/[3H](D-Pen2,D-Pen5)enkephalin (selectivity: mu/delta), [3H]sufentanil/[3H]U69,593 (selectivity: mu/kappa), or [3H][D-Pen2,D-Pen5]enkephalin/[3H]U69,593 (selectivity: delta/kappa). High resolution in binding selectivity was observed: in rat brain the mu/delta selectivity for Tyr-D-Ala-Gly-(Me)Phe-Gly-ol and sufentanil were 0.02 and 0.03, whereas for [D-Pen2,D-Pen5]enkephalin and ICI 174,864 they were 1,200 and 998. Compared to mu opiates, the specific binding of delta and kappa agonists was less sensitive to sodium. The results describe a routinely applicable methodological approach for the assessment of selective ligand binding to the mu, delta and kappa opioid receptors in rodent and monkey brain membranes.