To identify spinal neurons that may synthesize nitric oxide, cells and fibers histochemically stained for NADPH diaphorase (a nitric oxide synthase) were studied in the spinal cord of rats. The histochemical reaction gave an image similar to the best Golgi impregnations, staining cells down to their finest processes. Transverse, horizontal, and parasagittal 50 and 100 microns sections were used to follow dendritic and axonal arborizations of stained neurons. Major cell groups were identified in the superficial dorsal horn and around the central canal (at all spinal levels), and in the intermediolateral cell column (at thoracic and sacral levels). Scattered positive cells were also found in deeper dorsal horn, ventral horn, and white matter. In some cases, axons of cells in the dorsal horn could be traced into the white matter; many of these cells resembled neurons projecting to various supraspinal targets. Stained cells in the intermediolateral column, which sent their axons into the ventral root, were presumed to be preganglionic autonomic neurons. Dense plexes of fibers were stained in laminae I and II and in the intermediolateral column. A large number of NADPH diaphorase-positive neurons in the spinal cord appear to be involved in visceral regulation. Fibers of the intermediolateral system had a special relationship with vasculature, suggesting that nitric oxide may help to couple neural activity with regional blood flow in the spinal cord. The abundance of NADPH diaphorase-positive neurons and fibers in the superficial dorsal horn suggests that nitric oxide may also be involved in spinal sensory processing.