To determine whether the central vasopressinergic system at the level of nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) modulates the reflex control of heart rate, we employed a new method for microinjection into the brainstem of conscious, freely moving rats. Baroreceptor reflex function was assessed during pressure changes induced by intravenous administration of phenylephrine (0.25-8 micrograms/kg) and sodium nitroprusside (0.5-16 micrograms/kg) in rats microinjected, through a permanent cannula into the brainstem, with saline, arginine vasopressin (AVP), or an AVP blocker. Baseline levels of pressure and heart rate were not changed by either peptide pretreatment. Restricted injection of AVP (20 ng-0.2 microliter) into the NTS attenuated the reflex bradycardia during pressure increases, with an upward displacement of the baroreceptor reflex function line (p less than 0.01) without change in the sensitivity. Local blockade of endogenous AVP, d(CH2)5Tyr(Me)AVP (1 microgram-0.2 microliter), depressed baroreceptor reflex sensitivity with intense bradycardia to either small or large pressure increases. Baroreceptor reflex control of heart rate in response to decreases in pressure was preserved during pretreatment with AVP, whereas endogenous blockade of AVP increased baroreceptor reflex sensitivity. These effects were specific to the NTS, since in another four rats there were no effects when the injections were made 1 mm above, into the cerebellum. The changes in baroreceptor reflex control of heart rate in conscious, unrestrained rats caused by administration of AVP and its endogenous blockade provide evidence that central vasopressinergic synapses at the NTS are important physiological modulators of baroreceptor reflex function.