We have investigated the effects of nerve growth factor (NGF, 2.5 ng/ml for 1-2 weeks) on enriched adult rat dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons maintained in cell culture in defined media. Whole-cell recordings in cells cultured in the absence and presence of NGF revealed no significant difference in resting membrane potential and input resistance. However, the threshold for spike generation was significantly lower in untreated cells than in treated cells; -25 +/- 1.1 mV vs -19 +/- 2.2 mV, respectively. The sensitivity of the Na+ spike to tetrodotoxin (TTX, 1 microM) was different in cells cultured in the absence or presence of NGF. For example, spikes were abolished by TTX in 100% of untreated cells, while in NGF-treated cells the spike was abolished in only 41% of the neurons. Chemosensitivity of DRG neurons was also different in the absence and presence of NGF. For example, the percent of neurons in which a current activated by 8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide (capsaicin, 500 nM) was detected, increased from 18% in untreated cells to 55% in NGF-treated cells. NGF did not influence the number of cells surviving. The results indicate that NGF can regulate TTX and capsaicin sensitivity in these adult rat sensory neurons. Our experimental protocol indicates that this effect is not mediated by a factor in the serum or released from non-neuronal cells.