1. The role of serotonin (5-HT) and excitatory amino-acids (EAAs) in the activation of the neural networks (i.e. the central pattern generators) that organize locomotion in mammals was investigated in an isolated brainstem-spinal cord preparation from the newborn rat. 2. The neuroactive substances were bath applied and the activity of fictive locomotion was recorded in the ventral roots. 3. Serotonin initiated an alternating pattern of right and left action potential bursts. The period of this rhythm was dose dependent, i.e. it decreased from around 10 s at 2 x 10(-5) M to 5 s at 10(-4) M. The effects of serotonin were blocked by a 5-HT1 antagonist (propranolol) and by 5-HT2 antagonists (ketanserin, cyproheptadine, mianserin). 5-HT3 antagonists were ineffective. The effects of methoxytryptamine, a non-selective 5-HT agonist, mimicked the 5-HT effects. 4. The endogenous EAAs, glutamate and aspartate, also triggered an alternating rhythmic pattern. Their effects were blocked by 2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (AP-5; a N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor blocker) and 6,7-dinitro-quinoxaline-2,3-dione (a non-NMDA receptor blocker). 5. Several EAA agonists (N-methyl-D,L-aspartate (NMA) and kainate) initiated rhythmic activity. The period of the induced rhythm (from 3 to 1 s) was similar with both of these substances but in a range of concentrations which was ten times lower in the case of kainate (10(-6) to 5 x 10(-6) M) than in that of NMA (10(-5) to 4 x 10(-5) M). alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate and quisqualate occasionally triggered some episodes of fictive locomotion with a threshold at 6 x 10(-7) and 10(-5) M, respectively.