WE determined the spatial and temporal dynamics of the increase in intracellular Ca2+ levels [Ca2+]i produced by substance P (SP) in dorsal horn neurons. A microinjection technique was used to apply minute amounts of SP to small areas of cultured neurons loaded with the Ca2+ indicator fura-2. Five successive applications of SP to the soma produced short-lasting (< 50 s) increases in [Ca2+]i that became gradually smaller, indicating receptor desensitization. Focal application of SP to a distal locus in a neurite produced a brief (12 s) increase in [Ca2+]i that travelled down the dendrite but did not spread into cell soma. Prolonged application of SP to these neurons caused the appearance of varicosities in their dendrites.