Capsaicin, the pungent component of "hot" chili peppers, selectively activates a distinct population of primary sensory neurons responsive to noxious stimuli. Many of these fibres express neuropeptides including the tachykinin, substance P. Using cultured dorsal root ganglion neurons, we found that capsaicin (10 microM) stimulated a 2-fold increase in release of substance P in the absence of extracellular Ca(2+). Elevated potassium (75 mM) was unable to induce release under these conditions. The introduction of Ca(2+) enhanced capsaicin-induced release and brought about a robust response to potassium. Preincubation of cells with botulinum neurotoxin A (100 nM) completely blocked potassium-induced release but the capsaicin response, in the absence of Ca(2+), was unaffected. However, toxin treatment dramatically reduced capsaicin-stimulated release in the presence of Ca(2+). It is concluded that capsaicin induces release of substance P from dorsal root ganglion neurons via two mechanisms, one requiring extracellular Ca(2+) and the intact synaptosomal-associated protein 25 kDa (SNAP-25), and the other independent of extracellular Ca(2+) and not involving SNAP-25.