Nerve growth factor (NGF) has the ability to increase the content of peptide transmitter in intact primary sensory afferents of the adult rat. We have previously shown that NGF can also induce a refill of peptide transmitters in capsaicin-depleted peptidergic nerve terminals of the rat paw skin upon intraplantar injection. The present study was aimed at investigating the neurochemical, immunohistochemical and functional recovery of peripheral and central terminals of capsaicin-lesioned afferents following administration of recombinant human NGF-beta (rhNGF-beta). The systemic capsaicin treatment in adult rats by 50 mg/kg s.c. (day 0) was followed by intraplantar rhNGF-beta injections (4 micrograms each) into one hind paw on days 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and by the analysis on day 8. The content of the marker peptide calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) showed a 100% NGF-induced recovery in the peripheral (sciatic nerve) and central axons (lumbar dorsal roots) on the side of the NGF treatment and also in the contralateral sciatic nerve and lumbar dorsal roots. In the terminals of the hind paw skin, the recovery of the CGRP content, as measured by radioimmunoassay, was 100% in the plantar and 80% in the dorsal skin ipsilaterally, and 55% in the dorsal and plantar hind paw skin contralaterally. In the lumbar dorsal spinal cord, CGRP content recovered by 85% bilaterally. The morphological appearance of the sensory nerve terminals was visualized by CGRP-immunohistochemistry. In the paw skin, the CGRP-immunoreactive (CGRP-IR) nerve endings were restricted to a fragmentary subepidermal plexus after the capsaicin treatment, whereas the subsequent NGF treatment caused a bilateral recovery of the subepidermal plexus and an intact reinnervation of the epidermis and blood vessels with free nerve terminals. The capsaicin-induced fragmentation of the CGRP terminal plexus in laminae I and II of the lumbar spinal dorsal horn was also markedly repaired on both sides by the intraplantar NGF injections. The NGF treatment caused the CGRP nerve terminals in the spinal cord to regain their ability of releasing transmitter upon capsaicin stimulation as shown in tissue slice superfusion experiments. These results show that within one week, rhNGF-beta can induce a complete reinnervation of skin and spinal cord with intact CGRP-IR nerve terminals after an acute capsaicin lesion.