Microinjection of a cholinergic agonist, carbachol, into the pontine reticular formation of chronically instrumented intact or acutely decerebrate rats and cats has been used extensively to study rapid eye movement sleep mechanisms. In this study, we sought to develop a reduced carbachol model of rapid eye movement sleep-like neural events exhibiting multiple physiological markers of this state, and allowing for the use of invasive electrophysiological techniques. Accordingly, we investigated whether pontine carbachol could produce rapid eye movement sleep-like motor atonia and electrocortical changes in urethane-anaesthetized rats. We recorded cortical and hippocampal electroencephalograms and genioglossus and inspiratory intercostal muscle activities in 13 urethane-anaesthetized, spontaneously breathing, tracheotomized and vagotomized rats. In steady-state periods with high-voltage/low-frequency electroencephalogram activity, carbachol microinjections (15-40 nl, 10 mM) were placed in the medial pontine reticular formation. In 12 rats, carbachol elicited episodes of stereotyped hypotonia of genioglossus but not intercostal muscle activity, typical of rapid eye movement sleep, with a latency and duration of 2.2+/-0.3min (mean+/-S.E.M.) and 11.0+/-2.9 min, respectively. In four of these rats, also similar to rapid eye movement sleep, the major suppression of genioglossus activity (-74+/-9%) was accompanied by electroencephalogram desynchronization, appearance of hippocampal theta rhythm, and a respiratory rate increase (+ 14+/-3%). In the remaining eight rats, the stereotyped suppression of genioglossus activity (-48+/-3%) occurred without electroencephalogram desynchronization and hippocampal theta, and was accompanied by a respiratory rate decrease (-6+/-2%); a pattern of response typical of decerebrate animals. Within a rat, similar patterns of response to repeated carbachol injections at the same anatomical site were obtained. Pontine atropine prevented responses to subsequent carbachol injections. Thus, in urethane-anaesthetized rats, pontine carbachol consistently produced a differential suppression of pharyngeal versus respiratory pump muscle activity, and in a subset of animals, this was also accompanied by cortical and hippocampal electrographic changes typical of rapid eye movement sleep. This shows that complex and stereotyped neuronal events underlying both ascending and descending signs of rapid eye movement sleep can be pharmacologically activated under general anaesthesia. Such a reduced preparation may be useful for studies into the central neuronal mechanisms underlying generation of rapid eye movement sleep; particularly for studies requiring techniques that are difficult to implement in intact, naturally sleeping animals. The acceleration of the respiratory rate observed only when carbachol induced electroencephalogram desynchronization suggests that neural events associated with electrocortical changes contribute to the respiratory rate increases observed in natural rapid eye movement sleep.