The effects of temperature and pH/CO(2) were examined in isolated brainstem preparations from adult North American bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana). These experiments were undertaken to determine the effects of temperature on fictive breathing, central pH/CO(2) chemoreception, and to examine potential alphastat regulation of respiration in vitro. Adult bullfrog brainstem preparations were isolated, superfused with an artificial cerebrospinal fluid (aCSF) and respiratory-related neural activity was recorded from cranial nerves V, X and XII. In Series I experiments (N=8), brainstem preparations were superfused with aCSF equilibrated with 2% CO(2) at temperatures ranging from 10 to 30 degrees C. Neural activity was present in all preparations in the temperature range of 15-25 degrees C, but was absent in most preparations when aCSF was at 10 or 30 degrees C. The absence of fictive breathing at high (30 degrees C) temperatures was transient since fictive breathing could be restored upon returning the preparation to 20 degrees C. In Series II experiments (N=10), preparations were superfused with aCSF equilibrated with 0%, 2% and 5% CO(2) at temperatures of 15, 20 and 25 degrees C. Fictive breathing frequency (f(R)) was significantly dependent upon aCSF pH at all three temperatures, with slopes ranging from -0.82 min(-1) pH unit(-1) (15 degrees C) to -3.3 min(-1) pH unit(-1) (20 degrees C). There was a significant difference in these slopes (P<0.02), indicating that central chemoreceptor sensitivity increased over this temperature range. Fictive breathing frequency was significantly dependent upon the calculated alpha-imidazole (alpha(Im)) ionization (P<0.05), consistent with the alphastat hypothesis for the effects of temperature on the regulation of ventilation. However, most of the variation in f(R) was not explained by alpha(Im) (R(2)=0.05), suggesting that other factors account for the regulation of fictive breathing in this preparation. The results indicate that the in vitro brainstem preparation of adult bullfrogs has a limited temperature range (15-25 degrees C) over which fictive breathing is consistently active. Although there is a close correspondence of ventilation in vitro and in vivo at low temperatures, these data suggest that, as temperature increases, changes in ventilation in the intact animal are likely to be more dependent upon peripheral feedback which assumes a greater integrative role with respect to chemoreceptor drive, respiratory frequency and tidal volume.