The naturally occurring tachykinins, substance P, neurokinin A and neurokinin B, induce the formation of inositol phosphates or cAMP in a variety of tissues but their effects on neurons have not been resolved. We used primary cultures of neonatal rat spinal cord to determine whether neurokinin receptors mediate changes in these second messengers in spinal neurons. We found that substance P, neurokinin A and neurokinin B induced the formation of inositol phosphates in a concentration-dependent manner with similar potencies (ec50s: 3.6, 5.7 and 21.3 nM, respectively), but at concentrations tested (0.1-1.0 μM) these peptides had no effect on cAMP levels. All three tachykinins induced the formation of inositol phosphates predominately by activation of neurokinin1 receptors. CP-96,345 and WIN 51,708, neurokinin1 receptor antagonists, attenuated the response to substance P, neurokinin A and neurokinin B. GR 103,537, a neurokinin2 receptor antagonist, had no effect on the responses induced by any of the tachykinins. Furthermore, the selective neurokinin1 receptor agonist, GR-73632, induced the formation of inositol phosphates in a concentration-dependent manner, whereas the selective neurokinin2 receptor agonist, GR-64349, generated inositol phosphates only at the highest concentration tested (10 μM). Senktide, a neurokinin3 receptor agonist, did not induce the formation of inositol phosphates at any of the concentrations tested (0.10-10 μM). Inositol phosphate formation appeared to be due to a direct effect of the tachykinins on neuronal neurokinin1 receptors. These results suggest that biological responses in spinal neurons following activation of neurokinin1 receptors are mediated mainly by the hydrolysis of phosphoinositol 4,5-bisphosphate to form inositol 1,4,5-triphosphate and diacylglycerol. It remains to be determined which of these second messengers mediates the increased neuronal excitability and depolarization that occurs in response to substance P.