Plasticity of spinal systems in response to lumbosacral deafferentation has previously been described for the cat, by using immunocytochemistry to demonstrate plasticity of tachykinin systems and degeneration methods to demonstrate plasticity of descending systems. In this study, we describe the response to lumbosacral deafferentation in the adult rat. Application of immunocytochemical methods to visualize tachykinins (predominantly substance P magnitude of SP), serotonin (5-HT), and dopamine B-hydroxylase (DBH), the synthesizing enzyme for norepinephrine, permits us to compare the response of SP systems in rat and cat spinal cord and to examine the response of two descending systems, serotoninergic and noradrenergic, to deafferentation. We used image analysis of light microscopic preparations to quantify the immunoreaction product in the spinal cord in order to estimate the magnitude, time course and localization of changes induced by the lesion. The distribution of SP, serotoninergic (5-HT), and noradrenergic staining in the spinal cord of rat is very similar to that of the cat. Unilateral lumbosacral rhizotomy elicits a partial depletion, followed by a partial replacement of tachykinin immunoreactivity in laminae I and II. This response was similar to that described for the cat, although characterized by a longer time course, and, as in the cat, is likely due to plasticity of tachykinin containing interneurons. The same lesion elicits no depletion but a marked and permanent increase in 5-HT immunoreactivity in laminae I and II, which develops more rapidly than the response by the SP system. These results indicate sprouting or increased production of SP and 5-HT in response to deafferentation. No change was seen in DBH immunoreactivity, indicating that the noradrenergic system does not show plasticity in response to deafferentation. Our results demonstrate that dorsal rhizotomy evokes different effects in different systems in the adult spinal cord of the rat and thus suggests that the response of undamaged pathways to partial denervation of their target is regulated rather than random.