The role of persistent inward currents (PICs) in cat respiratory motoneurones (phrenic inspiratory and thoracic expiratory) was investigated by studying the voltage-dependent amplification of central respiratory drive potentials (CRDPs), recorded intracellularly, with action potentials blocked with the local anaesthetic derivative, QX-314. Decerebrate unanaesthetized or barbiturate-anaesthetized preparations were used. In expiratory motoneurones, plateau potentials were observed in the decerebrates, but not under anaesthesia. For phrenic motoneurones, no plateau potentials were observed in either state (except in one motoneurone after the abolition of the respiratory drive by means of a medullary lesion), but all motoneurones showed voltage-dependent amplification of the CRDPs, over a wide range of membrane potentials, too wide to result mainly from PIC activation. The measurements of the amplification were restricted to the phase of excitation, thus excluding the inhibitory phase. Amplification was found to be greatest for the smallest CRDPs in the lowest resistance motoneurones and was reduced or abolished following intracellular injection of the NMDA channel blocker, MK-801. Plateau potentials were readily evoked in non-phrenic cervical motoneurones in the same (decerebrate) preparations. We conclude that the voltage-dependent amplification of synaptic excitation in phrenic motoneurones is mainly the result of NMDA channel modulation rather than the activation of Ca2+ channel mediated PICs, despite phrenic motoneurones being strongly immunohistochemically labelled for CaV1.3 channels. The differential PIC activation in different motoneurones, all of which are CaV1.3 positive, leads us to postulate that the descending modulation of PICs is more selective than has hitherto been believed.