Little is known about the role of Ca(2+) in central chemosensitive signaling. We use electrophysiology to examine the chemosensitive responses of tetrodotoxin (TTX)-insensitive oscillations and spikes in neurons of the locus ceruleus (LC), a chemosensitive region involved in respiratory control. We show that both TTX-insensitive spikes and oscillations in LC neurons are sensitive to L-type Ca(2+) channel inhibition and are activated by increased CO(2)/H(+). Spikes appear to arise from L-type Ca(2+) channels on the soma whereas oscillations arise from L-type Ca(2+) channels that are distal to the soma. In HEPES-buffered solution (nominal absence of CO(2)/HCO(3)(-)), acidification does not activate either oscillations or spikes. When CO(2) is increased while extracellular pH is held constant by elevated HCO(3)(-), both oscillation and spike frequency increase. Furthermore, plots of both oscillation and spike frequency vs. intracellular [HCO(3)(-)]show a strong linear correlation. Increased frequency of TTX-insensitive spikes is associated with increases in intracellular Ca(2+) concentrations. Finally, both the appearance and frequency of TTX-insensitive spikes and oscillations increase over postnatal ages day 3-16. Our data suggest that 1) L-type Ca(2+) currents in LC neurons arise from channel populations that reside in different regions of the neuron, 2) these L-type Ca(2+) currents undergo significant postnatal development, and 3) the activity of these L-type Ca(2+) currents is activated by increased CO(2) through a HCO(3)(-)-dependent mechanism. Thus the activity of L-type Ca(2+) channels is likely to play a role in the chemosensitive response of LC neurons and may underlie significant changes in LC neuron chemosensitivity during neonatal development.