The motor effects of capsaicin on the guinea-pig distal colon have been investigated in vivo and in vitro. Capsaicin (0.1-10 micrograms kg-1 i.v.) produced a transient relaxation which was reduced by pretreatment with capsaicin itself, atropine, hexamethonium, phentolamine or guanethidine and almost abolished by tetrodotoxin (TTX). Topically applied capsaicin produced a transient inhibition of tone and spontaneous activity prevented by topically applied TTX. In isolated preparations of distal colon, capsaicin produced a transient, TTX- and atropine-sensitive contraction which was followed by a depression of the contractile activity. The depressant effect was unaffected by atropine plus guanethidine but was greatly reduced by TTX, indicating activation of intramural non-adrenergic, non-cholinergic (NANC) mechanisms. The depressant effect on the first exposure to capsaicin (1 microM) was greater than that produced by a second, third or fourth exposure. In preparations excised from capsaicin-pretreated animals, capsaicin (1 microM) only produced an inhibitory effect on spontaneous contractions. Desensitization did not occur to this inhibitory effect. In preparations pre-exposed to capsaicin (1 microM, 1 h before), capsaicin (1-30 microM) produced a concentration-related inhibition of spontaneous contractions (IC50 = 19 microM) and of the high K+-induced tonic contraction (IC50 = 23 microM). A similar effect on spontaneous motility was produced by capsaicin in colonic segments excised from capsaicin-pretreated guinea-pigs (IC50 = 16 microM) or guinea-pigs treated with TTX (IC50 = 20 microM). It is concluded that, in vivo, capsaicin activates inhibitory reflexes, presumably due to stimulation of primary afferent fibres. This effect involves, at least in part, activation of sympathetic nerves to this organ. The contractile effect of capsaicin on the isolated colon involves activation of intramural cholinergic neurones, whereas the TTX-sensitive component of the inhibitory effect involves either release of an inhibitory transmitter through an axon reflex arrangement or activation of NANC neurones. In addition, at high concentrations capsaicin produces a direct depression of smooth muscle contraction.