The objective of the present investigation was to study the reversible cardiac arrest (RCA) to visual stimuli in the unrestrained Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) as well as the modulation of this response and its behavioral component (arousal/orientation or startle response) by external and internal factors that interfere with alertness and emotionality. The study was preceded by the determination of the autonomic receptors that contribute to the establishment of the heart rate (HR) and the RCA. Systemic injection of atropine and propranolol showed that a double cardiac autonomic control is present in the tilapia. Basal HR was 79.8+/-1.8 beats min(-1) and HR assessed after double autonomic blockade was 74.1+/-3.3 beats min(-1). The mean interbeat interval was 0.79+/-0.40 s during baseline recording and the magnitude of RCA induced by a moving shadow (2.67+/-0.22 s) was higher than that induced by light (1.53+/-1.11 s). RCA is peripherally mediated by muscarinic receptors for it is abolished by atropine but not by propranolol. Stressful conditions like handling the animal outside the water or a nociceptive stimulus (subcutaneous 2% or 3% formalin injection) reduced the cardiac interbeat interval. A subanesthetic dose of barbiturate (5 mg kg(-1)) inhibited RCA induced by a moving shadow stimulus and the startle response, suggesting that an ideal degree of vigilance is necessary for its occurrence. Benzodiazepine injections (1.0 and 2.0 mg kg(-1)) abolished the reduction in magnitude of RCA induced by handling stress and facilitated the startle response, seen in the dry-cold season, in a dose-dependent manner. These data suggest that drugs that act on alertness and on emotionality modulate the magnitude of cardiac interbeat intervals and the corresponding behavioral response.