The distribution of retrogradely and transneuronally labeled neurons was studied in CNS of rats 4 days after injections of the Bartha strain of pseudorabies virus (PRV) into the medial gastrocnemius (MG) muscle. Tissue sections were processed for immunohistochemical detection of PRV. Retrogradely labeled cells were identified in the ipsilateral MG motor column in the caudal L4 and the L5 spinal segments. In order to evaluate the efficacy of PRV retrograde cell body labeling, the number of PRV retrogradely labeled neurons in the MG motor column was compared to the number labeled with two conventional retrograde cell body markers--Fluoro-Gold and cholera toxin-HRP. A ratio of 1:3 representing medium-sized (less than 30 microns) versus large neurons (greater than 30 microns) was found in the Fluoro-Gold dye experiments; a 1:2 ratio was seen in the PRV experiments. In contrast, when cholera toxin-HRP was used as a retrograde marker, mainly large neurons were labeled; the medium-to-large cell body ratio was 1:10 suggesting cholera toxin-HRP may have a greater affinity for the terminals of alpha-motoneurons as opposed to gamma-motoneurons. Transneuronally labeled cells were identified in the L1-L6 spinal gray matter, intermediolateral cell column (T11-L2), lateral spinal nucleus and medial part of lamina VII in C4 and C5 spinal segments, brainstem (caudal raphe nuclei, rostral ventrolateral medulla, A5 cell group, paralemniscal nucleus, locus coeruleus, subcoeruleus nucleus, red nucleus) and paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus. In the L5 spinal cord, transneuronally labeled neurons were seen in the ipsilateral spinal laminae I and II and bilaterally in spinal laminae IV-VIII, and X. Similar results were obtained in rats that had chronic unilateral L3-L6 dorsal rhizotomies indicating most of the labeling was due to retrograde transneuronal cell body labeling. In order to determine whether PRV was transported into the spinal cord by the dorsal root axons, the ipsilateral dorsal root ganglia (DRGs) were examined for PRV immunoreactivity; none was found. However, using the polymerase chain reaction, viral DNA was shown to be present in the ipsilateral DRGs indicating that some of spinal cord cell body labeling may have resulted from anterograde transneuronal labeling, as well.