We used the testable predictions of mathematical models proposed by Butera et al. to evaluate cellular, synaptic, and population-level components of the hypothesis that respiratory rhythm in mammals is generated in vitro in the pre-Bötzinger complex (pre-BötC) by a heterogeneous population of pacemaker neurons coupled by fast excitatory synapses. We prepared thin brain stem slices from neonatal rats that capture the pre-BötC and maintain inspiratory-related motor activity in vitro. We recorded pacemaker neurons extracellularly and found: intrinsic bursting behavior that did not depend on Ca(2+) currents and persisted after blocking synaptic transmission; multistate behavior with transitions from quiescence to bursting and tonic spiking states as cellular excitability was increased via extracellular K(+) concentration ([K(+)](o)); a monotonic increase in burst frequency and decrease in burst duration with increasing [K(+)](o); heterogeneity among different cells sampled; and an increase in inspiratory burst duration and decrease in burst frequency by excitatory synaptic coupling in the respiratory network. These data affirm the basis for the network model, which is composed of heterogeneous pacemaker cells having a voltage-dependent burst-generating mechanism dominated by persistent Na(+) current (I(NaP)) and excitatory synaptic coupling that synchronizes cell activity. We investigated population-level activity in the pre-BötC using local "macropatch" recordings and confirmed these model predictions: pre-BötC activity preceded respiratory-related motor output by 100-400 ms, consistent with a heterogeneous pacemaker-cell population generating inspiratory rhythm in the pre-BötC; pre-BötC population burst amplitude decreased monotonically with increasing [K(+)](o) (while frequency increased), which can be attributed to pacemaker cell properties; and burst amplitude fluctuated from cycle to cycle after decreasing bilateral synaptic coupling surgically as predicted from stability analyses of the model. We conclude that the pacemaker cell and network models explain features of inspiratory rhythm generation in vitro.