The distributions of mRNAs for the protooncogene trk and the low- affinity NGF receptor (LNGFR) were studied by hybridization with oligonucleotide probes on sections of adult rat primary sensory and sympathetic ganglia. For comparison with high-affinity binding sites, adjacent sections were processed for NGF receptor radioautography. Among neurons in lumbar dorsal root ganglia and trigeminal ganglia, trk mRNA and NGF-binding sites were closely colocalized; this finding together with previous direct evidence in other cell types is taken to indicate that trk protein is an essential component of the high- affinity NGF receptor in adult sensory neurons. In lumbar dorsal root ganglia and trigeminal ganglia, abundant LNGFR mRNA was found in all neurons with strong 125I-NGF labeling and on additional neurons lacking high-affinity NGF-binding sites. The presence of abundant LNGFR in neurons with high-affinity receptors could be the cause and/or consequence of their ability to respond to NGF. Neurons with abundant LNGFR mRNA but few high-affinity NGF-binding sites may have receptors for other members of the neurotrophin family. In nodose ganglia, neurons with high concentrations of LNGFR mRNA greatly outnumbered the small percentage with abundant trk mRNA. Following intrathecal infusion of NGF to otherwise normal dorsal root ganglia, the concentrations of LNGFR mRNA but not those of trk mRNA and NGF-binding sites were increased in NGF-responsive neurons. The usual single normal pattern of frequency histograms of LNGFR labeling indices became bimodal in response to NGF. Concentrations of NGF-binding sites, LNGFR mRNA, and trk mRNA were all decreased by peripheral nerve transection and restored by exogenous NGF, the restoration being complete for LNGFR mRNA and partial for trk mRNA and NGF-binding sites. The data indicate that NGF can regulate both LNGFR and trk mRNAs but do not clarify the possible contribution of the LNGFR protein to high-affinity binding sites.