Rapid eye movement sleep can be elicited in the rat by microinjection of the cholinergic agonist carbachol into the oral pontine reticular nucleus. Intracerebroventricular administration, during the light period, of vasoactive intestinal peptide enhances rapid eye movement sleep in several species. Since this peptide is co-localized with acetylcholine in many neurons in the central nervous system, it was assumed that the oral pontine tegmentum could also be one target for vasoactive intestinal peptide to induce rapid eye movement sleep. This hypothesis was tested by recording the sleep-wakefulness cycle in freely-moving rats injected with vasoactive intestinal peptide or its fragments (1-12 and 10-28) directly into the oral pontine reticular nucleus. when administered into the posterior part of this nucleus, vasoactive intestinal peptide at 1 and 10 ng (in 0.1 microliter of saline), but not its fragments, induced a 2-fold enhancement of rapid eye movement sleep during 4 h, at the expense of wakefulness. At the dose of 10 ng, a significant increase in rapid eye movement sleep persisted for up to 8 h. Moreover, when the peptide was injected into the centre of the positive zone, rapid eye movement sleep was enhanced during three to eight consecutive days. These data provide the first evidence that rapid eye movement sleep can be elicited at both short- and long-term by a single intracerebral microinjection of vasoactive intestinal peptide. Peptidergic mechanisms, possibly in association with cholinergic mechanisms, within the caudal part of the oral pontine reticular nucleus may play a critical role in the long-term regulation of rapid eye movement sleep in rats.