Previous work has indicated that capsaicin-sensitive afferent neurons are involved in gastric mucosal defense mechanisms. The present study investigated whether stimulation of these neurons by intragastric administration of capsaicin would protect against aspirin-induced mucosal damage in the luminally perfused rat stomach. Capsaicin (25-640 microM), administered together with acidified (pH 1.5) aspirin (25 mM), inhibited macroscopically visible lesion formation and gastric bleeding in a concentration-dependent fashion. Capsaicin (160 microM) also attenuated the aspirin-induced fall in the gastric potential difference. An inhibitory effect of capsaicin (160 microM) on aspirin-induced gastric injury was also seen by light and scanning electron microscopy. Aspirin alone caused a vast ablation of the gastric surface epithelium, resulting in exposure of the lamina propria. In the presence of capsaicin, the depth of mucosal injury, the area totally deprived of surface epithelial cells, and the severity of surface desquamation were diminished. As capsaicin is a selective stimulant of thin afferent neurons, it would appear that these neurons participate in mechanisms of gastric defense against aspirin injury. Prevention of hemorrhagic damage seems to be the primary effect of afferent nerve-mediated gastroprotection, although injury to the surface epithelium is also reduced to some degree.