The vagal complex is innervated by oxytocin immunoreactive axons of hypothalamic origin. The presence of oxytocin binding sites in the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve of the rat was evidenced by autoradiography with a radioiodinated oxytocin antagonist as ligand. Two weeks following a unilateral vagotomy, distal to the nodose ganglion, binding sites were reduced below the level of detection in the ipsilateral dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve. Choline acetyltransferase immunoreactivity was also markedly reduced in the vagal motoneurons whose axons had been transected. Electrophysiological studies were performed in vitro in brainstem slices from control rats. In antidromically identified vagal motoneurones, oxytocin applied at 0.1-1.0 microM either caused a reversible depolarization or generated, under voltage-clamp conditions, a transient inward current. These responses persisted under the condition of synaptic uncoupling. Taken together these observations favour the notion that oxytocin of hypothalamic origin acts directly on rat vagal motoneurones.