We used the [3H]resiniferatoxin binding assay to demonstrate for the first time the existence of vanilloid receptors in the rat colon and to explore their expression during trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid-induced colitis. Membranes obtained from control colon bound [3H]resiniferatoxin with an affinity of 3 nM; the receptor density was 450 fmol/mg protein or 9 fmol/mg wet weight. Capsaicin and capsazepine, a competitive antagonist of capsaicin, inhibited specific resiniferatoxin binding with Ki values of 3 microM and 0.1 microM, respectively. Trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid induced a very rapid ulceration in the colon: 1 h after treatment 90% of the colon showed ulcerative damage. Coadministration of 640 microM capsaicin diminished the ulcerative effect of trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid to 64% when examined 1 h after trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid challenge; however, this protective action was lost 23 h later. Colon samples obtained 4 h, 24 h, and 1 week after trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid challenge bound resiniferatoxin, capsaicin, and capsazepine with affinities similar to those of control samples. The receptor density remained at an essentially constant level when expressed in fmol/mg protein but, in keeping with the increased wet weights, showed a reduction when expressed in fmol/mg wet weight. We conclude that acute capsaicin administration protects against the ulcerative action of trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid, most likely via the release of protective neuropeptides from capsaicin-sensitive nerve endings. The loss of this protective action is presumably due to a depletion of the protective neuropeptides rather than to a loss of vanilloid (capsaicin) receptors.