In situ hybridization histochemistry was used to show the distribution of messenger RNA for central cannabinoid CB 1 receptors in dorsal root ganglia of the rat. CB1 messenger RNA was highly expressed in neuronal subpopulations of rat dorsal root ganglia. The phenotypes of neurons that express messenger RNA for CB1 were subsequently examined by combining a 35S-labeled ribonucleotide probe for CB1 messenger RNA with digoxigenin-labeled riboprobes for preprotachykinin A (substance P precursor), alpha-calcitonin gene-related peptide and preprosomatostatin (somatostatin precursor) messenger RNAs. Qualitative examination revealed expression of CBI messenger RNA predominantly in medium-and large-sized cells distributed throughout the dorsal root ganglia. The majority of neurons expressing substance P messenger RNA were CB1 messenger RNA negative and smaller in size than the CB1 messenger RNA-positive cells. Only 13% of substance P messenger RNA-positive cells expressed CB1 messenger RNA. A similar degree of co-localization was observed with alpha-calcitonin gene-related peptide: 10% of cells expressing messenger RNA for this neuropeptide were CB1 messenger RNA positive. Co-localization of CB1 and somatostatin messenger RNAs was observed in less than 0.5% of somatostatin messenger RNA-positive cells. The data suggest that subpopulations of neurons in rat dorsal root ganglia are capable of synthesizing cannabinoid receptors and inserting them on terminals in the superficial dorsal horn. These findings provide anatomical evidence for cannabinoid modulation of primary afferent transmission. Although an anatomical basis for cannabinoid-mediated suppression of release of neurogenic peptides from nociceptive primary afferents is provided, our results demonstrate that the majority of CB messenger RNA-positive neurons in the dorsal root ganglia contain transmitters and/or neuromodulators other than the neuropeptides examined herein.