The presence of large neurofilamentous accumulations in the perikaryon and proximal axon of motor neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) suggests that the expression of this abundant cytoskeletal protein may be altered. We performed quantitative in situ hybridization for the low molecular weight neurofilament subunit (NF-L) messenger RNA in six cases of sporadic ALS and six controls. We found a 41% decrease (p < 0.02) in the NF-L mRNA levels in anterior horn cells in ALS, with a 60% decrease (p < or = 0.01) in alpha motor neurons. This alteration may represent a non-specific response to axonal or neuronal injury or, alternatively, reflect the regenerative activity of residual normal motor neurons. NF-L mRNA levels were consistently low (in the third and fourth quartiles) in spheroid-bearing motor neurons, indicating that the neurofilamentous accumulations observed in ALS are not likely the result of overexpression of the NF-L gene. Total neuronal polyadenylated mRNA levels were also 50% lower (p = 0.02) in anterior horn cells and 48% lower (p < or = 0.05) in alpha motor neurons in ALS, possibly reflecting a decrease in selected mRNA species in diseased motor neurons.