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The discharge of single afferent units recorded from filaments of the mixed ciliary nerve of anaesthetised cats was used to study the effects of CO2, capsaicin and the capsaicin antagonist, capsazepine, on sensory nerve terminals in the cornea. Units were selected on the basis of their sensitivity to CO2 (98.5% applied to the cornea for 30 s in a moist gas stream). Of these units, about 50% (18/38) also responded to capsaicin (0.1 μM applied as droplet and washed off after 20 s), with a discharge of similar magnitude to that produced by CO2. The other CO2-sensitive units (20/38) did not respond to capsaicin. Capsaicin-sensitive units responded more rapidly to CO2 (mean latency to first spike 0.7±0.2 s) than capsaicin-insensitive units (mean latency to first spike 5.1±1.2 s). On the basis of their conduction velocity, both the capsaicin-sensitive and the capsaicin-insensitive groups included both A- and C-fibres. Application of capsazepine (10 μM for 5–20 min) to the cornea reversibly blocked the response of the units to capsaicin without affecting responses to CO2. Units that were acutely desensitised by exposure to capsaicin (0.1 μM) for 30 s, during which time the discharge evoked by capsaicin declined to zero, still responded to CO2, though the response was reduced by 44% compared with controls. It is concluded that activation of sensory afferents in the cat cornea by capsaicin and by CO2 appear to involve distinct mechanisms, since: (a) many CO2-sensitive units are not excited by capsaicin; (b) capsazepine selectively blocks excitation by capsaicin without affecting responses to CO2; and (c) desensitisation to capsaicin impairs only partially the responsiveness to CO2.