The ability of neurotoxic substances to induce selective lesions of the descending monoaminergic pathways in rats was investigated. Saline, 6-hydroxydopamine, 5,6-dihydroxytryptamine, or 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine were administered into the lumbar subarachnoid space through a chronically indwelling catheter. The lesions were evaluated 2-3 weeks later by in vitro uptake of [3H]noradrenaline and [14C]5-hydroxytryptamine into synaptosomal preparations from the frontal cortex, brainstem, cervical spinal cord, and lumbar spinal cord of each animal. There was no difference in uptake between saline-injected and noncatheterized controls and no significant changes in cortical uptake after any of the treatments (dose range of neurotoxins: 0.6-80 micrograms). In the lumbar spinal cord, 6-hydroxydopamine (5-80 micrograms) reduced the [3H]noradrenaline uptake by approximately 90% with no effects on [14C]5-hydroxytryptamine uptake, whereas 5,6-dihydroxytryptamine reduced the uptake of [14C]5-hydroxytryptamine by 90% (20-80 micrograms). [3H]Noradrenaline uptake was unaffected by lower doses of 5,6-dihydroxytryptamine but fell by 45-55% after 40-80 micrograms. 5,7-Dihydroxytryptamine (10-80 micrograms) reduced [3H]noradrenaline uptake by 90-95% and [14C]5-hydroxytryptamine uptake by approximately 80% (5-80 micrograms) in the lumbar cord. It is concluded that intrathecal administration of suitable doses of neurotoxins may produce extensive selective lesions of descending noradrenergic and serotonergic pathways.