In an attempt to clarify the ultimate fate of permanently axotomized adult primary neurons, horseradish peroxidase (HRP) was used as a cell marker to label the motor, sensory and postganglionic sympathetic neurons of rat sural nerves which had been sectioned at the ankle and prevented from regenerating for periods of up to 80 weeks. Axotomy did not affect sympathetic neurons, but resulted 4 weeks later in a sudden reduction in the number of labeled sensory and motor cells which persisted to the end of the study. The missing neuronal population amounted to 44.4% and 45.9% respectively of the normal sensory and motor contingent and included most of the large afferent and efferent neurons. However, examination of sural nerves at the thigh, 30 mm proximal to the neuroma, revealed marked axonal atrophy but no change in the number of myelinated and unmyelinated fibers up to 52 weeks after axotomy. Such prolonged survival of the peripheral processes is indirect evidence that axotomized neurons can endure long-term detachment from their end organs and suggests that the lack of HRP labeling in certain sensory and motor neurons does not imply their degeneration, but expresses one of many retrograde dysfunctions triggered by axotomy.