The development of spinal cord or dorsal root ganglia neurons expressing calretinin (CR) was studied in thyroid hormone-deficient rats. Immunocytochemical and morphometric analyses showed that the hypothyroidism induced a significant decrease in the number and size of immunoreactive neurons in the spinal cord, as well as stunted growth and arborization of the axons and dendrites. These alterations were observed at different embryonic ages and persisted during the whole postnatal life. In adult hypothyroid rats, the mean number of CR-positive neurons per spinal cord section (31.2 +/- 2.3 in laminae I and II and 30.5 +/- 5.5 in laminae III-X) was significantly decreased (P < 0.001 and P = 0.024, respectively) compared with adult normal rats (68.7 +/- 8.9 and 50.0 +/- 11.0, respectively). In the peripheral nervous system, hypothyroidism altered the growth of sensory neurons expressing CR protein mainly during embryonic life. In comparison with normal rats, hypothyroid embryonic animals showed not only reduced cell size but also a significantly decreased percentage of CR-positive neurons (6.6 +/- 0. 9% in normal, 2.1 +/- 0.3% in hypothyroid rats, P < 0.001). In contrast, although the size of neurons was reduced in hypothyroid young and adult rats, there was no reduction in the percentage of CR-positive neurons. These results showed that thyroid hormone deficiency altered differentially the development of neurons expressing CR protein in the central and peripheral nervous systems. This suggests that central and peripheral neurons are heterogeneous in their sensitivity to thyroid hormone.