Swallow-evoked potentials in the preganglionic vagal fibers were studied using the single-fiber recording technique in anesthetized opossums. Swallows were evoked by tactile pharyngeal stimulation or electrical stimulation of the cut central end of the superior laryngeal nerve (SLN). Swallowing activity was recorded by the mylohyoid electromyogram and esophageal motility. Sixty-six fibers were studied in which swallowing evoked action potentials. The latencies (from the onset of mylohyoid activity) of evoked responses in different fibers varied from 100 ms to 5 s. The discharge rate of the evoked response was 3-8 action potentials per burst. Each burst lasted 1.1 +/- 0.02 (SE)s. The latencies of evoked spike bursts showed a bimodal distribution. In 34 fibers the latencies were less than 1 s, and in 32 fibers the latencies ranged between 1 and 5 s; these are the short- and long-latency fibers, respectively. Short-latency fibers could easily be distinguished from long-latency fibers based on the influence of SLN-stimulus frequency. Short-latency discharges had low thresholds of activation and were sensitive to changes in the frequency of SLN stimulation, since their latencies decreased and their discharge rate increased with increasing SLN-stimulus frequency. On the other hand, the latencies and discharge rates of long-latency discharges were not modified with changing SLN stimulus frequencies. The conduction velocities of 6 short- and 9 long-latency fibers were 5.64 +/- 0.12 and 5.78 +/- 0.12 (SE) m/s, respectively (P greater than 0.05). The relationship between the latencies of swallow-evoked discharges in the short- and long-latency fibers and the esophageal smooth muscle responses suggested that the short-latency discharges may correlate with the latency of initial inhibition, and the long-latency fibers may correlate with latencies of peristaltic contractions. Based on these temporal relationships, we speculate that vagal efferent fibers showing swallow-evoked, short-latency discharges make contact with intramural inhibitory neurons. They may mediate deglutitive inhibition in the body of the esophagus, relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, and receptive relaxation of the fundus of the stomach. The fibers showing late discharges make contact with intramural excitatory neurons and participate in their sequential activation. This dual pathway of activation may be responsible for physiological esophageal peristalsis.