Primary sensory neurons are capable of successful regenerative growth in response to peripheral nerve but not dorsal root injury. The present study is concerned with the differential expression of the mRNA for GAP- 43, a growth-associated protein, in these sensory neurons, in response to injury of their central or peripheral axonal branches. Peripheral axotomy resulted in an elevation in message detectable within 24 hr, using Northern blot and in situ hybridization, which was maintained for 30 d, whereas dorsal root section produced no change except a transient and small increase if the axotomy was immediately adjacent to the dorsal root ganglia (DRG). Dorsal root section had no effect on GAP-43 mRNA levels in the dorsal horn or in neighboring intact DRG. It also failed to alter the laminar boundaries of the GAP-43 central terminal labeling produced by peripheral nerve section, even though vacant synaptic sites were produced in unstained laminae by this procedure. This indicates that the location of GAP-43 immunolabeling in the central terminals of primed sensory cells may not depend only on the location of vacant synaptic sites. We conclude that distinct control mechanisms regulate the response of DRG neurons to peripheral nerve and dorsal root injury, and these may be related both to the glial environment and the particular target influences exerted on the central and peripheral branches of the primary sensory neuron. Central denervation alone is insufficient to upregulate GAP-43 levels, and this may explain the relative absence of collateral sprouting after the production of central vacant synaptic sites. The failure of dorsal root section to increase GAP-43 expression may contribute to the poor regenerative response initiated by such lesions.