The present study was undertaken to explore the neuronal mechanisms responsible for muscle atonia that occurs after the microinjection of bicuculline into the nucleus pontis oralis (NPO). Specifically, we wished to test the hypothesis that motoneurons are postsynaptically inhibited after the microinjection of bicuculline into the NPO and determine whether the inhibitory mechanisms are the same as those that are utilized during naturally occurring active (rapid eye movement) sleep. Accordingly, intracellular records were obtained from lumbar motoneurons in cats anesthetized with alpha-chloralose before and during bicuculline-induced motor inhibition. The microinjection of bicuculline into the NPO resulted in a sustained reduction in the amplitude of the spinal cord Ia-monosynaptic reflex. In addition, lumbar motoneurons exhibited significant changes in their electrophysiological properties [i.e., a decrease in input resistance and membrane time constant, a reduction in the amplitude of the action potential's afterhyperpolarization (AHP) and an increase in rheobase]. Discrete, large-amplitude inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs) were also observed in high-gain recordings from lumbar motoneurons. These potentials were comparable to those that are only present during the state of naturally occurring active sleep. Furthermore, stimulation of the medullary nucleus reticularis gigantocellularis evoked a large-amplitude IPSP in lumbar motoneurons after, but never prior to, the injection of bicuculline; this reflects the pattern of motor responses that occur in conjunction with the phenomenon of "reticular response-reversal." The preceding changes in the electrophysiological properties of motoneurons, as well as the development of active sleep-specific IPSPs, indicate that lumbar motoneurons are postsynaptically inhibited following the intrapontine administration of bicuculline in a manner that is comparable to that which occurs spontaneously during the atonia of active sleep. The present results support the conclusion that the brain stem-spinal cord inhibitory system, which is responsible for motor inhibition during active sleep, can be activated by the injection of bicuculline into the NPO. These data suggest that the active sleep-dependent motor inhibitory system is under constant GABAergic inhibitory control, which is centered in the NPO. Thus during wakefulness and quiet sleep, the glycinergically mediated postsynaptic inhibition of motoneurons is prevented from occurring due to GABAergic mechanisms.