Biochemical and ultrastructural effects of the aldose reductase inhibitor sorbinil were examined in two experimental rat models of chronic diabetic neuropathy: rats with streptozocin-induced diabetes (STZ-D) and rats fed a galactose-enriched diet. The frequency of neuroaxonal dystrophy in the superior mesenteric sympathetic ganglia of rats with untreated 8-mo STZ-D increased sevenfold compared with that in age-matched controls. Animals chronically maintained on a diet containing 50% galactose, however, did not develop neuroaxonal dystrophy in excess of that found in untreated age-matched control rats. Institution of sorbinil therapy at the time of induction of STZ-D decreased, but did not completely normalize, the frequency of neuroaxonal dystrophy without altering the severity of diabetes; this finding is based on measurements of plasma glucose, body weight, food consumption, 24-h urine volume, and levels of glycosylated hemoglobin. Sorbitol levels in the superior cervical sympathetic ganglia (SCG) of untreated 8-mo-diabetic animals increased three- to fourfold compared with levels in controls. The increase in sorbitol content of diabetic SCG was completely prevented by early institution of dietary sorbinil therapy. The myo-inositol content of 8-mo-diabetic SCG was modestly decreased compared with controls. Sorbinil administration improved but did not completely normalize diabetic SCG myo-inositol. The sorbitol content of the SCG, superior mesenteric and celiac sympathetic ganglia, and a major trunk of the superior mesenteric nerve of short-term (2.5-mo)-diabetic rats increased comparably, but only the diabetic SCG showed a decrease in myo-inositol.