Inflammation and hyperalgesia induce a dramatic up-regulation of opioid messenger RNA and peptide levels in nociceptive neurons of the spinal dorsal horn. Descending axons modulate nociceptive transmission at the spinal level during inflammatory pain, and may play a role in the development of persistent pain. The role of descending bulbospinal pathways in opioid-containing nociceptive neurons was examined. Removal of descending inputs to the spinal cord was performed by complete spinal transection at the midthoracic level. Seven days after spinal transection, rats received a unilateral hindpaw injection of complete Freund's adjuvant, a noxious stimulus that produces inflammation and hyperalgesia. Tissues from the L4 and L5 segments of the spinal cord were removed and analysed by northern blotting and immunocytochemistry. Spinal transection resulted in a further increase in both dynorphin and enkephalin messenger RNA content following complete Freund's adjuvant injection. There was a similar distribution and number of dynorphin-immunoreactive cells in transected rats compared to rats which received sham surgery. These data suggest that increased dynorphin messenger RNA ipsilateral to inflammation, in rats without descending axons, was due to increased expression within the same cells and not to recruitment of additional dynorphin-expressing cells. This reflects a greater dynamic response of nociceptive neurons to noxious stimuli in the absence of descending modulation. Therefore, the net effect of descending afferents on spinal nociceptive circuits may be to reduce the response of opioid-containing neurons to noxious stimulation from the periphery.