When adult dorsal root ganglion cells are dissociated and maintained in vitro, both the small dark and the large light neurons show increases in the growth-associated protein GAP-43, a membrane phosphoprotein associated with neuronal development and plasticity. Immunoreactivity for GAP-43 appears in the cytoplasm of the cell bodies as early as 3.5 h post axotomy and is present in neurites and growth cones as soon as they develop. At early stages of culture (4 h to eight days) satellite/Schwann cells are also immunoreactive for GAP-43. Neurons in isolated whole dorsal root ganglion maintained in vitro become GAP-43-immunoreactive between 2 and 3 h after axotomy. It takes three days however, after cutting or crushing the sciatic nerve in adult rats in vivo, for GAP-43 immunoreactivity to appear in the axotomized dorsal root ganglion cells. GAP-43 immunoreactivity can be detected in the central terminals of primary afferent neurons in the superficial laminae of the dorsal horn of the lumbar enlargement four days after sciatic cut or crush. The intensity of the GAP-43 staining reaches a peak at 21 days and becomes undetectable nine weeks following crush injury and 36 weeks following sciatic nerve cut. The pattern of GAP-43 staining is identical to the distribution of sciatic small-calibre afferent terminals. Little or no staining is present in the deep dorsal horn, but GAP-43 does appear in the ipsilateral gracile nucleus 22 days after sciatic injury. In investigating the mechanism of GAP-43 regulation, blockade of axon transport in the sciatic nerve with vinblastine (10(-5) M-10(-4) M) or capsaicin (1.5%) was found to produce a pattern of GAP-43 immunoreactivity in the dorsal horn identical to that found with crush, while electrical stimulation of the sciatic nerve had no effect. Axotomy of primary sensory neurons or the interruption of axon transport in the periphery therefore acts to trigger GAP-43 production in the cell body. The GAP-43 is transported to both the peripheral and the central terminals of the afferents. In the CNS the elevated GAP-43 levels may contribute to an inappropriate synaptic reorganization of afferent terminals that could play a role in the sensory disorders that follow nerve injury.