An overlap between subpopulations of nerve growth factor (NGF)-responsive and capsaicin-sensitive dorsal root ganglion (DRG) sensory neurons has been suggested from a number of in vivo studies. To examine this apparent link in more detail, we compared the effects of capsaicin on adult rat DRG neurons cultured in the presence or absence of NGF. Capsaicin sensitivity was assessed histochemically by a cobalt staining method, by measuring capsaicin-induced 45Ca2+ uptake, and by electrophysiological recording of capsaicin-evoked membrane currents. When cultured with NGF, approximately 50% of these adult DRG neurons were capsaicin-sensitive, whereas adult sympathetic neurons or ganglionic nonneuronal cells were insensitive. DRG cultures grown in the absence of NGF, however, were essentially unresponsive to capsaicin. Capsaicin sensitivity could be regained fully within 4-6 days of replacement of NGF. These results indicate that, at least in vitro, NGF can modify the capsaicin sensitivity of adult DRG neurons.