A key distinction between neural pacemaker and conventional network models for the generation of breathing rhythm in mammals is whether phasic reciprocal inhibitory interactions between inspiratory and expiratory neurons are required. In medullary slices from neonatal rats generating respiratory-related rhythm, we measured the phasic inhibitory inputs to expiratory neurons with the use of whole cell patch clamp in the hypothesized rhythm generation site, the pre-Bötzinger complex (pre-BötC). Expiratory neurons, which generate tonic impulse activity during the expiratory period, exhibited inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs) synchronized to the periodic inspiratory bursts of the hypoglossal nerve root (XIIn). Bath application of the glycine receptor antagonist strychnine (STR; 5-10 microM) reversibly blocked these inspiratory-phase IPSPs, whereas the gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA(A)) receptor antagonist bicuculline (BIC; 10-100 microM) had no effect on these IPSPs. Replacing the control in vitro bathing solution with a Cl(-)-free solution also abolished these IPSPs. Respiratory-related rhythmic activity was not abolished when inspiratory-phase IPSPs were blocked. The frequency and strength of XIIn rhythmic activity increased and seizurelike activity was produced when either STR, BIC, or Cl(-)-free solution was applied. Inspiratory-phase IPSPs were stable after establishment of whole cell patch conditions (patch pipettes contained 7 mM Cl-). Under voltage clamp, the reversal potential of inspiratory-phase inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs) was -75 mV. The current-voltage (I-V) curve for IPSCs shifted to the right when extracellular Cl- concentration was reduced by 50% (70 mM) and the reversal potential was reduced to -60 mV, close to the new Cl- Nernst potential. In tetrodotoxin (0.5 microM) under voltage clamp (holding potential = -45 mV), local application of glycine (1 mM) over pre-BötC induced an outward current and an increase in membrane conductance in expiratory neurons. The effect was blocked by bath application of STR (0.8-1 microM). Local application of the GABA(A) receptor agonist 4,5,6,7-tetrahydroisoxazolo[5,4-c]pyridin-3-ol (THIP, 1 mM) induced an outward current and an increase in membrane conductance that was blocked by BIC (10-100 mM). Under voltage clamp (holding potential = -45 mV), we analyzed spontaneous IPSCs during expiration in expiratory neurons. Bath application of BIC (10 microM) reduced the IPSC frequency (from 2.2 to 0.3 per s), whereas the inspiratory-phase IPSCs did not change. Bath application of STR (8-10 microM) abolished both IPSCs. These results indicate that 1) reciprocal inhibition of expiratory neurons is glycinergic and mediated by a glycine-activated Cl- channel that is not required for respiratory-related rhythm generation in neonatal rat medullary slices; 2) endogenous GABA and glycine modulate the excitability of respiratory neurons and affect respiratory pattern in the slice preparation; 3) both glycine and GABA(A) receptors are found on pre-BötC expiratory neurons, and these receptors are sensitive to STR and BIC, respectively; 4) glycine and GABA(A) inhibitory mechanisms play different functional roles in expiratory neurons: both glycine and GABA(A) receptors modulate neuronal excitability, whereas glycinergic transmission alone is responsible for reciprocal inhibition; and 5) intracellular Cl- concentration in these neonatal expiratory neurons is similar to that in adults.