Despite the highly integrated pattern of response evoked by peripheral chemoreceptor stimulation, limited information exists regarding the neurones within the nucleus of the solitary tract that mediate this reflex. Using a working heart-brainstem preparation, we describe evoked synaptic response patterns, some intrinsic membrane properties, location, morphology and axonal projections of physiologically characterised 'chemoreceptive' neurones located in the solitary tract nucleus in the rat. From 172 whole cell recordings, 56 neurones were identified as chemoreceptive since they responded to aortic injections of low doses of sodium cyanide (2-5 microg). Chemoreceptive neurones had a mean resting membrane potential of -52+/-1 mV and input resistance was 297+/-15 M(Omega) (n=56). Synaptic responses evoked included excitatory synaptic potentials alone, excitatory-inhibitory post-synaptic potential complexes, inhibitory synaptic potentials alone and central respiratory modulated synaptic potentials. Synaptic response latency data were obtained by stimulating electrically the solitary tract: the mean excitatory synaptic latency was 5.2+/-0.4 ms (range 2.5-8.0 ms; n=17). Chemoreceptive neurones showed a heterogeneity in their intrinsic membrane properties: neurones displayed either steady state, augmenting or adapting firing responses to depolarising current injection and, in some neurones, either delayed excitation or rebound activity following hyperpolarising pulses. Eleven chemoreceptive neurones were labelled and provided the first morphological data of these cells. Labelled somata were detected dorsomedial or medial to the solitary tract spanning the obex. Neurones typically had three to eight primary dendrites which often entered the solitary tract as well as extending across the ipsilateral region of the nucleus of the solitary tract. Axons were mostly unmyelinated with boutons of the en passant variety and often ramified within the solitary tract nucleus as well as coursed towards the ipsilateral ventral medulla. In summary, this study provides new data on the neurophysiological, anatomical and morphological properties of nucleus of the solitary tract neurones responding to arterial chemoreceptors in the rat.