Neurofilament proteins (NFs) are made by co-polymerization of three intermediate filament proteins, NF-L, NF-M and NF-H and constitute the most abundant cytoskeletal element in large myelinated axons. NFs have a well-established role as intrinsic determinants of axon caliber with all the functional implications, but the role of each individual NF subunit is much less clear. The aim of our study was to examine functional properties of large myelinated axons with altered morphology from mice bearing a targeted disruption of each NF genes (NF-L -/-, NF-M-/- and NF-H -/- mice). Membrane properties, action potentials and single axon refractory period were measured in isolated sciatic nerves in vitro, using intra-axonal microelectrode recording in conjunction with current-clamp technique. Some results were obtained from whole nerves by sucrose-gap recording. The NF-knockout mice showed several deficits in physiological properties of low-threshold fibers. In keeping with smaller axon diameter, the conduction velocity was significantly decreased in NF-L -/- and NF-M -/- transgenic animals (control, 39.9+/-1.8 m/s, NF-M -/-; 23.5+/-1. 4 m/s, and NF-L-/-; 12.0+/-0.7 m/s, mean+/-S.E.M.; intra-axonal recording; similar ratios obtained by sucrose-gap recording; 22-26 degrees C). However, in spite of their preserved caliber, large myelinated axons in NF-H -/- mice also showed a significant decrease in conduction velocity (22.8+/-1.0 m/s, mean+/-S.E.M.). Although action potential amplitudes, duration and shape did not differ between control axons and transgenic animals, the refractory period was prolonged in NF-H -/- and NF-M -/- animals. Intracellular injections of 200 ms depolarizing and hyperpolarizing currents revealed outward and inward rectification in all animal groups. In comparison to control animals, NF-H -/- mice expressed a significant decrease in outward rectification. Potassium channel blockers (4AP and TEA) and cesium ions were able to block outward and inward rectification in all myelinated axons in qualitatively the same manner. These results suggest that NF-H may have a specific role in modulating ion channel functions in large myelinated fibers.