Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a trophic molecule essential for the survival of sympathetic and sensory neurons during ontogeny. The extent to which NGF is involved in the maintenance or regulation of the differentiated phenotypes of mature peripheral neurons is much less clear, however. Biochemical analysis of the actions of NGF upon peripheral neurons has been hampered by the lack of a preparation of neuronal cells that are responsive to NGF but do not require it for survival. We report here that in adult dorsal root ganglion neurons, which can be isolated, enriched and maintained in culture in the absence of neuronal growth factors, the expression of mRNAs encoding the precursors of two neuropeptides, substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide is regulated by NGF. Our results provide the first direct evidence of a continuous dynamic role for NGF in regulation of peptide neurotransmitter/neuromodulator levels in mature sensory neurons.