Using immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization the in vivo effects of acidic and basic fibroblast growth factor (aFGF, bFGF), and of nerve growth factor (NGF) on the expression of galanin, neuropeptide Y (NPY) and substance P in axotomized dorsal root ganglia (DRGs) were examined. Self-mutilation (autotomy), a supposed pain-related behavior, was investigated after growth factor treatment. One microgram of aFGF, bFGF or NGF was applied directly to the transected sciatic nerve via a capsule. In normal rats 3.2%, 0% and 17.5% of the neuron profiles in the DRGs contained galanin-, NPY- and substance P-like immunoreactivity (LI), respectively. Sciatic nerve transection induced a distinct increase in galanin- and NPY-LIs, but a downregulation of substance P-LI. Thus three days after axotomy 23.5%, 26.9% and 9.8% of the DRG neuron profiles showed immunoreactivity for galanin-, NPY- and substance P-LI, respectively. In vivo administration of aFGF counteracted the axotomy-induced increase in galanin and NPY, whereas bFGF only suppressed NPY upregulation. NGF reversed in the injury-induced decrease in substance P-LI, but had no significant effect on galanin- and NPY-LIs. These results were confirmed by monitoring the mRNA levels for these neuropeptides. Moreover, aFGF was found to induce autotomy in 60% of the rats 3 days after axotomy. NGF produced autotomy in about 30% of the rats. Taken together, the present results suggest (1) that aFGF, bFGF and NGF differentially regulate neuropeptide expression in vivo; (2) that FGFs can inhibit neuropeptide upregulation of some peptides after nerve injury; and (3) that aFGF and NGF may induce pain-related behavior.