1. Two sub-populations of pars compacta substantia nigra neurones were identified with very different electrophysiological properties and rostral-caudal distribution. Both cell types were identified by biocytin intracellular dye injection and found to be located within pars compacta containing tyrosine hydroxylase-positive cells. These sub-populations displayed distinctly different responses to transient anoxia. 2. The first group ('Phasic' neurones) exhibited a low threshold calcium conductance LTS gCa associated with bursts of action potentials, were located at the level of the mammillary bodies and were highly sensitive to anoxia. The second group ('rhythmic' neurones) fired in a rhythmic pattern, were located at the level of the accessory optic tract and were relatively insensitive to anoxia. 3. The anoxic response of phasic cells was characterized by membrane hyperpolarization (mean 12 mV), a decrease in input resistance (mean 36%) and cessation of action potential firing. The axonic response of these neurones was not blocked by TEA (5-10 mM), haloperidol (100 microM), the removal of extracellular calcium or depletion of endogenous dopamine. However, this effect was blocked by both the sulphonylurea tolbutamide (50-500 microM), and also by quinine (100 microM) and could be mimicked by application of diazoxide (1 mM). 4. Rhythmic cells displayed a variable response to anoxia consisting of either modest depolarization, hyperpolarization or no change in membrane potential, in all cases accompanied by little or no change in input resistance. The polarity of the membrane potential shift during anoxia was reversed by TEA (5-10 mM) or the removal of calcium. These cells were also relatively insensitive to diazoxide (1 mM). 5. It is concluded from the neuronal responses to anoxia and the pharmacological modification of these responses, that the ATP-sensitive potassium channel (KATP channel) is functionally operative in the substantia nigra and is primarily distributed on the phasically discharging cells of the rostral pars compacta. The relevance of this recently discovered ionic channel is discussed with regard to the normal and abnormal functioning of the substantia nigra.