1. The goal of the present study was to identify potential neurotransmitter candidates in the Breuer-Hering (BH) reflex pathway, specifically at synapses between the primary afferents and probable second-order neurones (pump cells) within the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS). We hypothesized that if activation of specific receptors in the NTS is required for production of the BH reflex, then (1) injection of the receptor agonist(s) would mimic the reflex response (apnoea), (2) injection of appropriate antagonists would impair the apnoea produced by either lung inflation or agonist injection, and (3) second-order neurones in the pathway would be excited by either lung inflation or agonists while antagonists would prevent the response to either. 2. Studies were carried out either in spontaneously breathing or in paralysed, thoracotomized and ventilated rats in which either diaphragm EMG or phrenic nerve activity, expired CO2 concentration and arterial pressure were continuously monitored. The BH reflex was physiologically activated by inflating the lungs. 3. Pressure injections (0.03-15 pmol) of selective excitatory amino acid (EAA) receptor agonists, quisqualic acid (Quis) and N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) into an area of the NTS shown previously to contain neurones required for production of the BH reflex produced dose-dependent apnoeas that mimicked the response to lung inflation. Injection of substance P (0.03-4 pmol) did not alter baseline respiratory pattern. 4. Injections of the EAA antagonists, kynurenic acid (Kyn; 0.6-240 pmol), 6-cyano-7-nitro-quinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX) or 6,7-dinitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (DNQX) into the BH region of the NTS reversibly impaired the apnoea produced by lung inflation. All three antagonists reduced or abolished the apnoeas resulting from injection of Quis or NMDA, and slowed baseline respiratory frequency. In contrast, injections of the highly selective NMDA receptor antagonist, D-2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acids (AP5), in doses sufficient to block the apnoeic response to NMDA, neither altered the reflex apnoea evoked by lung inflation nor the baseline respiratory pattern. 5. Pump cells located within the BH region were excited by pressure injections of the broad spectrum EAA agonist, DL-homocysteic acid (DLH). Kyn reversibly blocked the excitation of pump cells in response to either lung inflation or DLH injection. 6. These findings suggest that EAAs mediate primary afferent excitation of second-order neurones in the Breuer-Hering reflex pathway, primarily through the activation of non-NMDA EAA receptor subtypes.