The role of the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) in initiating and controlling the power of swimming was studied in semi-intact preparations of larval and adult sea lampreys. The brain and the rostral portion of the spinal cord were exposed in vitro, while the intact caudal two-thirds of the body swam freely in the Ringer's-containing chamber. Electrical microstimulation (2-10 Hz; 0. 1-5.0 microA) within a small periventricular region in the caudal mesencephalon elicited well-coordinated and controlled swimming that began within a few seconds after the onset of stimulation and lasted throughout the stimulation period. Swimming stopped several seconds after the end of stimulation. The power of swimming, expressed by the strength of the muscle contractions and the frequency and the amplitude of the lateral displacement of the body or tail, increased as the intensity or frequency of the stimulating current were increased. Micro-injection of AMPA, an excitatory amino acid agonist, into the MLR also elicited active swimming. Electrical stimulation of the MLR elicited large EPSPs in reticulospinal neurons (RS) of the middle rhombencephalic reticular nucleus (MRRN), which also displayed rhythmic activity during swimming. The retrograde tracer cobalt-lysine was injected into the MRRN and neurons (dia. 10-20 microm) were labelled in the MLR, indicating that this region projects to the rhombencephalic reticular formation. Taken together, the present results indicate that, as higher vertebrates, lampreys possess a specific mesencephalic region that controls locomotion, and the effects onto the spinal cord are relayed by brainstem RS neurons.