The mechanism of activation of sensory neurons by the potent irritant resiniferatoxin (RTX) was compared with that of the pungent compound, capsaicin. RTX and capsaicin evoked an inward, depolarising current associated with an increase in membrane conductance in a subpopulation of dissociated cultured neurons from rat dorsal root ganglia. RTX also evoked an uptake of 45Ca into and an efflux of [14C]guanidinium and of 86Rb from these cells but was at least 100-fold more potent than capsaicin. The levels of cGMP, but not cAMP were elevated by RTX. Prolonged exposure to RTX damaged DRG neurons by a predominantly osmotic process. RTX-sensitive cells were identified by a cobalt-staining method; neurofilament-containing DRG neurons were RTX-insensitive as were all sympathetic neurons and non-neuronal cells. Cultured DRG neurons from chick embryos were also unaffected by RTX. In a neonatal rat spinal cord-tail preparation in vitro, RTX activated capsaicin-sensitive peripheral nociceptive fibres and caused a subsequent spinal cord depolarization measured in the ventral spinal roots. Neither prolonged exposure to a phorbol ester, to desensitize/down-regulate protein kinase C, nor inhibition of protein kinase C by staurosporine affected responses produced by RTX or capsaicin. The effects of capsaicin were abolished when preparations were exposed to desensitizing concentrations of RTX. RTX therefore acts as a highly potent capsaicin analogue to activate a subpopulation of rat sensory neurons.