Propranolol HCl (7.5 mg X kg-1), timolol maleate (7.0 mg X kg-1), and sotalol HCl (10 mg X kg-1) were administered intracerebroventricularly (icv) to spontaneously breathing (SB) rats. The respiratory rate declined until the rats all died from respiratory arrest. Artificial ventilation resulted in survival of the rats for a 3-hr observation period. Intravenous (iv) administration of the same doses of the three beta blockers to SB rats did not result in either respiratory depression or death. Except for a decrease in heart rate (HR) the hemodynamic and respiratory parameters remained almost constant during the 3-hr observation period after iv administration to SB rats. After icv administration to SB as well as to ventilated rats no significant differences could be observed in the initial decrease in HR in comparison with iv administration. In SB rats at the end of the experiments a further decrease in HR was observed which might be ascribed to hypoxia since it did not occur in ventilated rats. After icv administration of each drug to the ventilated rats, mean arterial blood pressure showed a significantly greater decrease at the end of the 3-hr observation period than after iv administration. Plasma concentrations of the three drugs were determined just before death after icv administration in SB rats. In the other two groups they were measured at mean survival time and at the end of the experimental period. The plasma concentrations showed that the route of administration rather than the concentration of the beta blocker in plasma determines the occurrence of respiratory arrest. It was concluded that an overdose of propranolol, timolol, or sotalol can cause a centrally mediated respiratory arrest. Furthermore, a central mechanism appears to be implicated in the decrease in blood pressure.