Small (18-25 microm diam) dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons are known to express high levels of tetrodotoxin-resistant (TTX-R) sodium current and the mRNA for the alpha-SNS sodium channel, which encodes a TTX-R channel when expressed in oocytes. These neurons also preferentially express the high affinity receptor for nerve growth factor (NGF), TrkA. Levels of TTX-R sodium current and of alpha-SNS mRNA are reduced in these cells after axotomy. To determine whether NGF participates in the regulation of TTX-R current and alpha-SNS mRNA in small DRG neurons in vivo, we axotomized small lumbar DRG neurons by sciatic nerve transection and administered NGF or Ringer solution to the proximal nerve stump using osmotic pumps. Ten to 12 days after pump implant, whole cell patch-clamp recording demonstrated that TTX-R current density was decreased in Ringer-treated axotomized neurons (154 +/- 45 pA/pF; mean +/- SE) compared with nonaxotomized control neurons (865 +/- 123 pA/pF) and was restored partially toward control levels in NGF-treated axotomized neurons (465 +/- 78 pA/pF). The V1/2 for steady-state activation and inactivation of TTX-R currents were similar in control, Ringer- and NGF-treated axotomized neurons. Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction revealed an upregulation of alpha-SNS mRNA levels in NGF-treated compared with Ringer-treated axotomized DRG. In situ hybridization showed that alpha-SNS mRNA levels were decreased significantly in small Ringer-treated axotomized DRG neurons in vivo and also in small DRG neurons that were dissociated and maintained in vitro, so as to correspond to the patch-clamp conditions. NGF-treated axotomized neurons had a significant increase in alpha-SNS mRNA expression, compared with Ringer-treated axotomized cells. These results show that the administration of exogenous NGF in vivo, to the proximal nerve stump of the transected sciatic nerve, results in an upregulation of TTX-R sodium current and of alpha-SNS mRNA levels in small DRG neurons. Retrogradely transported NGF thus appears to participate in the control of excitability in these cells via actions that include the regulation of sodium channel gene expression in vivo.