The effect of chronic spinal cord transection on neurofilament immunoreactivity and capsaicin sensitivity of L6 and S1 dorsal root ganglion neurons innervating the urinary bladder was examined using an antibody (RT97) against 200,000 mol. wt subunit of neurofilament protein and a cobalt uptake assay, respectively. Bladder afferent neurons labelled by axonal transport of a fluorescent dye (Fast Blue) injected into the bladder wall were identified in sections of intact dorsal root ganglia and among dissociated neurons in short-term culture. Approximately two thirds of bladder afferent neurons from spinal intact rats were neurofilament-poor (i.e. C-fibre neurons). These neurons were on average 37% smaller in cross-sectional area than neurofilament-rich neurons (A delta-fibre neurons). In spinal intact rats, 78% of neurofilament-poor dissociated bladder afferent neurons were sensitive to capsaicin, while only 6.2% of neurofilament-rich neurons were capsaicin-sensitive. Dissociated bladder afferent neurons from spinal transected animals had larger diameters (34.2 +/- 1.1 microns) than those from spinal intact animals (29.2 +/- 1.2 microns). In tissue sections from dorsal root ganglia, the mean cross-sectional area of bladder afferent neuron profiles in spinal transected animals was also larger by approximately 35% than in spinal intact animals. Immunoreactivity to neurofilament protein which occurred in 32% of bladder afferent neurons in spinal intact animals was detected in a larger percentage (56% to 62%) of neurons from spinal transected animals. Conversely, the population of capsaicin-sensitive dissociated neurons was reduced from 55% in spinal intact rats to 38% in spinal transected rats. These results indicate that spinal cord injury induces functional and morphological plasticity in C-fibre visceral afferent neurons innervating the urinary bladder.