The influence of sustained epileptic seizures evoked by intraperitoneal injection of kainic acid on the gene expression of the neuropeptides somatostatin and neuropeptide Y and on the damage of neurons containing these peptides was studied in the rat brain. Injection of kainic acid induced an extensive loss of somatostatin and, though less pronounced, of neuropeptide Y neurons in the inner part of the hilus of the dentate gyrus. Neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive neurons located in the subgranular layer of the hilus, presumably pyramidal-shaped basket cells, were spared by the treatment. Although neuropeptide Y messenger RNA was not detected in granule cells of control rats, it was found there after kainic acid seizures at all time intervals investigated (12 h to 90 days after injection of kainic acid). High concentrations of neuropeptide Y messenger RNA were especially observed 24 h after injection of kainic acid. At this time neuropeptide Y messenger RNA was also transiently observed in CA1 pyramidal cells. Neuropeptide Y synthesis in granule cells in turn gave rise to an intense immunoreactivity of the peptide in the terminal field of mossy fibers which persisted for the entire time period (90 days) investigated. In addition, neuropeptide Y messenger RNA concentrations were also drastically elevated in presumptive basket cells located at the inner surface of the granule cell layer, especially at the "late" time intervals investigated (30-90 days after kainic acid). These data support the concept that extensive activation of granule cells by limbic seizures contributes to the observed neuronal cell death in CA3 pyramidal neurons and interneurons of the hilus. Consecutively, basket cells containing neuropeptide Y and presumably GABA might be activated and participate in recurrent inhibition of granule cells. Neuropeptide Y-immunoreactive fibers observed in the inner molecular layer at "late" time intervals after kainic acid may result either from collateral sprouting of mossy fibers or from basket cells extensively expressing the peptide. It is speculated that neuropeptide Y synthesized and released at a high rate from granule cells and basket cells may exert a protective action against seizures.