Sciatic sensory afferents that retrogradely transport and accumulate leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) within their soma were characterized in the adult rat in vivo. Twenty-four percent of neurons within the L4 and L5 dorsal root ganglia accumulated biotinylated LIF following intraneural injection of the cytokine into the sciatic nerve. Labelled cell bodies were predominantly of small diameter (20.1 +/- 0.5 microm). Retrograde transport was eliminated by excess unlabelled LIF but not by the related cytokines, ciliary-derived neurotrophic factor (CNTF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Double labelling revealed that the majority (81%) of LIF-accumulating neurons were immunopositive for CGRP and 34% were immunopositive for the cell surface glycoconjugate IB4. Sixty-two percent of LIF-accumulating neurons were immunopositive for trkA. Our results demonstrate a group of small-diameter sensory neurons that retrogradely transport LIF, comprising cells that constitutively express neuropeptides and those likely to be peptide-deficient. LIF-accumulating neurons expressing trkA are also potentially responsive to nerve growth factor. It is likely that the LIF-accumulating neurons described in this study are nociceptive in function.