The trigeminal principal sensory nucleus (NVsnpr) contains both trigemino-thalamic neurons and interneurons projecting to the reticular formation and brainstem motor nuclei. Here we describe the inputs and patterns of firing of NVsnpr neurons during fictive mastication in anaesthetized and paralysed rabbits to determine the role that NVsnpr may play in patterning mastication. Of the 272 neurons recorded in NVsnpr, 107 changed their firing patterns during repetitive stimulation of the left or right sensorimotor cortex to induce fictive mastication. Thirty increased their firing tonically. Seventy-seven became rhythmically active, but only 31 fired in phase with mastication. The others discharged in bursts at more than twice the frequency of trigeminal motoneurons. Most rhythmic masticatory neurons were concentrated in the dorsal part, and those which fired during the jaw closing phase of the cycle were confined to the anterior pole of the nucleus. Most of these cells had inputs from muscle spindle afferents, whereas most of those firing during jaw opening had inputs from periodontal receptors. Non-masticatory rhythmical neurons had receptive fields on the lips and face. The majority of rhythmical masticatory units were modulated during fictive mastication evoked by both the left and right cortices and only four changed their phase of firing when switching from one cortex to the other. When coupled with the finding that NVsnpr neurons exhibit spontaneous bursting in vitro[Sandler et al. (1998) Neuroscience, 83, 891], the results described here suggest that neurons of dorsal NVsnpr may form the core of the central pattern generator for mastication.