DiI-labeled colon sensory neurons were acutely dissociated from S1 rat dorsal root ganglia (DRG) and studied using perforated whole cell patch-clamp techniques. Forty-six percent (54/116) of labeled sensory neurons responded to capsaicin (10(-8)- 10(-5) M) with an increase in inward current, which was a nonspecific cation conductance. Responses to capsaicin applied by puffer ejection were dependent on dose, with a half-maximal response at 4.9 x 10(-7) M; bath application was characterized by marked desensitization. Voltage-gated Na(+) currents in 23 of 30 DRG cells exhibited both TTX-sensitive and TTX-resistant components. In these cells, capsaicin induced an inward current in 11 of 17 cells tested. Of the cells containing only a TTX-sensitive component, none of six cells tested was sensitive to capsaicin. In all cells that responded to capsaicin with an increase in inward current, capsaicin abolished voltage-gated Na(+) currents (n = 21). Capsazepine (10(-6) M) significantly attenuated both the increase in inward current and the reduction in Na(+) currents. Na(+) currents were not significantly altered by adenosine, bradykinin, histamine, PGE(2), or serotonin at 10(-6) M and 10(-5) M. These findings may have important implications for understanding both the irritant and analgesic properties of capsaicin.