It has been suggested that the proto-oncogenes c-fos and c-myc participate in the control of genetic events which lead to the establishment of prolonged functional changes in neurons. Expression of c-fos and c-myc are among the earliest genetic events induced in cultured fibroblast and phaeochromocytoma cell lines by various stimuli including growth factors, peptides and the intracellular second messengers diacylglycerol, cAMP and Ca2+. We report here that physiological stimulation of rat primary sensory neurons causes the expression of c-fos-protein-like immunoreactivity in nuclei of postsynaptic neurons of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Activation of small-diameter cutaneous sensory afferents by noxious heat or chemical stimuli results in the rapid appearance of c-fos-protein-like immunoreactivity in the superficial layers of the dorsal horn. However, activation of low-threshold cutaneous afferents results in fewer labelled cells with a different laminar distribution. No c-fos induction was seen in the dorsal root ganglia, gracile nucleus or ventral horn. Thus, synaptic transmission may induce rapid changes in gene expression in certain postsynaptic neurons.