The expression of neurotransmitters/neuromodulators in sympathetic neurons is regulated by anterograde and retrograde mechanisms. We have examined the role of such mechanisms in the regulation of the neuropeptide vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). The adult rat superior cervical ganglion (SCG) contains low levels of peptide-like immunoreactivity (IR) and mRNA for VIP. Some VIP-IR nerve processes, but only a few VIP-IR cell bodies, are detectable. Previous evidence demonstrates, however, that after the SCG is placed in organ culture for 48 hr, the level of VIP-IR and VIP mRNA and the number of VIP-IR cell bodies and fibers increase considerably. Two of the possible causes for these changes in peptide expression in sympathetic neurons are deafferentation and axotomy, both of which occur when the SCG is placed in culture. To determine the importance of deafferentation, the preganglionic cervical sympathetic trunk was cut and the ganglion left in situ. Forty-eight hours later, VIP-IR increased twofold. A corresponding increase in the number of VIP-IR nerve processes was seen, but there was no detectable change in the number of VIP-IR cell bodies. The content of VIP/PHI mRNA also increased by 1.8-fold. The effect of axotomy on VIP-IR was examined by cutting the postganglionic internal and external carotid nerves and leaving the ganglion in situ. Forty-eight hours later, the level of VIP-IR increased 22-fold, many immunostained neurons were found, and the content of VIP mRNA increased over fivefold. After either deafferentation or axotomy, changes in VIP- IR were accompanied by comparable changes in the related molecule peptide histidine isoleucine amide (PHI)-IR. Neuropeptide Y-IR, on the other hand, decreased after deafferentation and increased only twofold after axotomy. The results indicate plasticity in the expression of VIP- and PHI-IR in adult sympathetic neurons in vivo, and suggest that the changes previously seen in organ culture were primarily a response to axotomy.