The cellular mechanisms underlying rhythmic bursts induced in the isolated neonatal rat spinal cord by bath application of strychnine and bicuculline (which block glycine- and gamma-aminobutyric acid-A-receptor-mediated inhibition, respectively) were probed with pharmacological tools. Such spontaneous bursts were recorded either intracellularly from lumbar motoneurons or extracellularly from ventral roots. As previously described, these network-driven events consisted of large-amplitude depolarizations arising abruptly from baseline with a highly regular period (on average 28 s). Burst episodes (lasting on average 7 s) comprised several oscillations and appeared synchronously on flexor and extensor motoneuron pools of both sides of the spinal cord. Their diffuse location made convenient to use bath-applied substances in the attempt to selectively block distinct membrane processes operating through the network. Application of apamin (0.4 microM) shortened both cycle period and burst duration without changing their regular rhythmicity. Similar results were obtained with carbachol (10 microM). Cs+ (4 mM) reversibly hyperpolarized the motoneuron membrane potential and largely increased burst duration, which was characterized by a long series of repetitive oscillatory waves. Cycle period and rhythmicity remained unaltered. Ouabain (10 microM), strophanthidin (4 microM), or K(+)-free solutions disrupted rhythmic bursting, which was fragmented into irregularly occurring paroxysmal activity mixed with short depolarizing events, still developing simultaneously on both sides of the spinal cord. Bursting activity eventually ceased after approximately 30-40 min of application of ouabain or strophanthidin. Prolonged washout of strophanthidin or K(+)-free solutions reestablished regular bursting patterns, whereas no recovery from ouabain was observed. At the time of strong depression of bursting, it was still possible to evoke bursts by single electrical pulses applied to the segmental dorsal root. Antidromic spikes of motoneurons could still be evoked by ventral root stimulation. These results demonstrate that, in a spinal bursting network mainly made up by excitatory processes, blockers of slow Ca(2+)-dependent K+ currents, such as apamin or carbachol, or of the slow inward rectifier, such as Cs+, did not suppress rhythmicity, suggesting that these conductances simply contributed to control cycle period and/or burst duration. Conversely, pharmacological blockers of the electrogenic Na+ pump such as ouabain, strophanthidin, or K(+)-free solutions severely disrupted all characteristics of rhythmic bursting. It is proposed that the operation of the electrogenic Na+ pump of premotoneurons was a crucial element for rhythmic bursting.