Autoradiographic studies were performed in combination with dorsal rhizotomy or selective lesion of descending serotonergic or noradrenergic systems in an attempt to identify the neuronal cell types endowed with the serotonin 5-HT1A, 5-HT1B and 5-HT3 receptors in the rat spinal cord. Unilateral sectioning of seven dorsal roots (C4-T2) at the cervical level produced a marked decrease (approximately-75%, 10 days after the surgery) in the binding of [125I]iodozacopride to 5-HT3 receptors in the superficial layers of the ipsilateral dorsal horn, further confirming the preferential location of these receptors on primary afferent fibres. In addition, a significant decrease (approximately 20%) in the binding of [3H]8-OH-DPAT to 5-HT1A receptors and of [125I]GTI to 5-HT1B receptors was also observed in the same spinal area in rhizotomized rats, suggesting that a small proportion of these receptors are also located on primary afferent fibres. The labelling of 5-HT1B receptors was significantly decreased (-12%) in the dorsal horn at the cervical (but not the lumbar) level, and that of 5-HT3 receptors was unchanged in the whole spinal cord in rats whose descending serotonergic projections had been destroyed by 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine. Conversely, the labelling of 5-HT1A receptors was significantly increased in the cervical (+13%) and lumbar (+42%) dorsal horn in 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine-lesioned rats. Similarly, [3H]8-OH-DPAT binding to 5-HT1A receptors significantly increased (+26%) in the lumbar (but not the cervical) dorsal horn in rats whose noradrenergic systems had been lesioned by DSP-4. The labelling of 5-HT1B receptors was also increased (+31% at the cervical level; +17% at the lumbar level), whereas that of 5-HT3 receptors remained unchanged in these animals. These data indicate that complex adaptive changes in the expression of 5-HT1A and 5-HT1B receptors occurred in the rat spinal cord following the lesion of descending monoaminergic systems.