Damage to sensory nerves invokes the expression of neuropeptide Y in the cell bodies of sensory neurons in dorsal root ganglia. We therefore compared the action of this peptide on control dorsal root ganglia neurons with its action on neurons from animals in which the sciatic nerve had been cut. Neuropeptide Y (0.1-1.0 microM) increased the excitability of 24% of control neurons and its effect was stronger and more cells (56%) were affected after axotomy. Increased excitability was mediated via a Y2-receptor and resulted from attenuation of Ca2+-sensitive K+-conductance(s) secondary to suppression of N-type Ca2+ channel current. Y1-agonists potentiated L-type Ca2+ channel current in control neurons without altering excitability. This Y1-effect was attenuated whereas effects mediated via Y2-receptors were enhanced after axotomy. No evidence was found for involvement of Y4- or Y5-receptor subtypes in the actions of neuropeptide Y either on control or on axotomized dorsal root ganglion neurons. It is concluded that neuropeptide Y increases the excitability of sensory neurons by interacting with a Y2-receptor and thereby decreasing N-type Ca2+ channel current and Ca2+-sensitive K+-conductance(s). When peripheral nerves are damaged, dorsal root ganglion neurons start to express neuropeptide Y and its excitatory Y2-excitatory effects are enhanced. The peptide may therefore contribute to the generation of aberrant sensory activity and perhaps to the etiology of injury-induced neuropathic pain.