An in vitro neonatal (1-7 day) rat brain stem-spinal cord-bladder (BSB) preparation was used to examine the central control of micturition. Isovolumetric bladder contractions occurred spontaneously or were induced by electrical stimulation of the ventrolateral brain stem, spinal cord, bladder wall (ES-BW), or by perineal tactile stimulation (PS). Transection of the spinal cord at the L1 segment increased the amplitude of ES-BW- and PS-evoked contractions, and subsequent removal of the spinal cord further increased spontaneous and ES-BW-evoked contractions but abolished PS-evoked contractions. Hexamethonium (1 mM), a ganglionic blocking agent, mimicked the effect of cord extirpation. Tetrodotoxin (1 microM) blocked ES-BW- and PS-evoked contractions but enhanced spontaneous contractions. Bicuculline methiodide (10-50 microM), a gamma-aminobutyric acid A receptor antagonist, increased the amplitude of spontaneous, ES-BW- and PS-evoked contractions. These results indicate that PS-evoked contractions are mediated by spinal reflex pathways, whereas spontaneous and ES-BW-evoked contractions that are elicited by peripheral mechanisms are subject to a tonic inhibition dependent on an efferent outflow from the spinal cord. PS-evoked micturition is also subject to inhibitory modulation arising from sites rostral to the lumbosacral spinal cord. Although electrical stimulation of bulbospinal excitatory pathways can initiate bladder contractions in the neonatal rat, these pathways do not appear to have an important role in controlling micturition during the first postnatal week.