Orexin (hypocretin)-containing projections from lateral hypothalamus (LH) are thought to play an important role in the regulation of feeding behaviour and energy balance. In rodent studies, central administration of orexin peptides increases food intake, and orexin neurones in the LH are activated by hypoglycaemia during fasting. In addition, administration of orexins into the fourth ventricle or the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV) has been shown to stimulate gastric acid secretion and motility, respectively, via vagal efferent pathways. In this study, whole-cell recordings were obtained from DMV neurones in rat brainstem slices to investigate the cellular mechanism(s) by which orexins produce their gastrostimulatory effects. To determine whether responsiveness to orexins might be differentially expressed among distinct populations of preganglionic vagal motor neurones, recordings were made from neurones whose projections to the gastrointestinal tract had been identified by retrograde labelling following apposition of the fluorescent tracer DiI to the gastric fundus, corpus or antrum/pylorus, the duodenum or caecum. Additionally, the responses of neurones to orexins were compared with those produced by oxytocin, which acts within the DMV to stimulate gastric acid secretion, but inhibits gastric motor function. Bath application of orexin-A or orexin-B (30-300 nM) produced a slow depolarization, accompanied by increased firing in 47 of 102 DMV neurones tested, including 70 % (30/43) of those that projected to the gastric fundus or corpus. In contrast, few DMV neurones that supplied the antrum/pylorus (3/13), duodenum (4/18) or caecum (1/13) were responsive to these peptides. The depolarizing responses were concentration dependent and persisted during synaptic isolation of neurones with TTX or Cd2+, indicating they resulted from activation of postsynaptic orexin receptors. They were also associated with a small increase in membrane resistance, and in voltage-clamp recordings orexin-A induced an inward current that reversed near the estimated equilibrium potential for K+, indicating the depolarization was due in large part to a reduction in K+ conductance. Orexins did not affect synaptically evoked excitation, but did reduce membrane excitability in a subset of gastric-projecting DMV neurones by enhancing GABA-mediated synaptic input. Lastly, although many DMV neurones responded to orexins and oxytocin with excitation, for the most part these peptides modulated excitability of distinct populations of gastric-projecting vagal motor neurones. These results indicate that orexins act preferentially within the DMV to directly excite vagal motor neurones that project to gastric fundus and corpus. In this way, release of endogenous orexins from descending hypothalamic projections into the DMV may mediate the increase in gastric acid secretion and motor activity associated with the cephalic phase of feeding.