Bradykinin is one of several pro-inflammatory, pain-inducing substances produced during inflammation--the body's response to injury. In previous work we have shown that bradykinin and guanosine-5'-O-3-thiotriphosphate increase excitability in a subpopulation of cultured neonatal rat dorsal root ganglion neurons. We now describe experiments in which the mechanism underlying the stimulatory action of these two substances has been examined in more detail. Using the whole-cell voltage-clamp technique, bradykinin-sensitive cells were distinguished by their response to a 1-s depolarizing voltage-pulse which evoked more than one inward current during the step command. The secondary inward currents are likely to represent action potentials generated at the poorly clamped neurites of these cells. Bradykinin- and guanosine-5'-O-3-thiotriphosphate-induced changes in excitability were measured indirectly by a change in the number of inward currents recorded during the 1-s depolarizing voltage-step. The effect of activators and inhibitors of protein kinase C, arachidonic acid metabolism, G-protein activation and release of intracellular Ca2+ were examined on this response. In the presence of extracellular staurosporine (1.0 microM) or nordihydroguaiaretic acid (10 microM), these excitatory effects were reduced but not abolished, whilst indomethacin (20 microM) had no effect. Intracellular application of guanosine-5'-O-2-thiodiphosphate (10 mM) or ryanodine (100 microM) substantially reduced the effect of bradykinin. The excitatory effect of internal guanosine-5'-O-3-thiotriphosphate (500 microM) occurred gradually over time, and this was mimicked by internal application of myo-inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphorothioate (1.0 microM). From the results, it is proposed that G-protein activation is an essential component of the bradykinin response, which may also require a Ca(2+)-activated conductance modulated by protein kinase C and lipoxygenase metabolites of arachidonic acid.