Immunocytochemistry has been used to examine the location of trkA, the high-affinity receptor for nerve growth factor, in adult rat dorsal root ganglia, trigeminal ganglia and spinal cord. TrkA immunoreactivity was observed in small and medium sized ganglion cells and in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. In lumbar L4 and L5 ganglia trkA-immunoreactive cells constitute 40% of dorsal root ganglion cells and range in size from 15 to 45 microns in diameter. Double labelling using markers for various dorsal root ganglion subpopulations revealed that virtually all (92%) trkA-immunoreactive cells express calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) immunoreactivity. In contrast only 4 and 13% of trkA-immunoreactive cells are labelled by the monoclonal antibody LA4 or the lectin Griffonia simplicifolia IB4, markers for small non-peptide-containing cells. Eighteen percent of trkA-immunoreactive cells belong to the 'large light' subpopulation, identified by their strong immunostaining by the neurofilament antibody RT97. TrkA immunoreactivity in the dorsal horn is heaviest in laminae I and II outer, has a similar distribution to CGRP, and is depleted by dorsal rhizotomy. Our results show that trkA-expressing cells in dorsal root ganglia correspond almost exactly with the CGRP, peptide-producing population. The receptor is present not only on cell bodies but also on central terminals. Non-peptide-containing small cells, which constitute 30% of dorsal root ganglion cells, are not trkA-immunoreactive and therefore most probably are functionally independent of nerve growth factor.