The effects of electrical stimulation of cervical vagal afferents (VAS) on the background activity and on the responses of 25 spinothalamic tract (STT) neurons to noxious stimuli were studied in anesthetized rats. Background (spontaneous) activity of 9 (36%) STT neurons was inhibited by all intensities of VAS, 6 (24%) units were facilitated at lesser and inhibited at greater intensities of VAS, 5 (20%) units were only facilitated by all intensities of VAS, and 5 (20%) units were not affected by VAS. Responses of 8 (36%) STT neurons to noxious stimuli were only inhibited by VAS, 9 (41%) were facilitated at lesser and inhibited at greater intensities of VAS, and 5 units (23%) were only facilitated by VAS. There were no significant differences in VAS-produced modulatory effects between STT neurons and 16 unidentified lumbar spinal dorsal horn neurons studied under the same conditions. These results reveal that descending facilitatory and inhibitory pathways engaged by activation of vagal afferents modulate rostrally projecting nociceptive transmission neurons in the spinal cord, constituting an important regulatory network for nociception. © 1991.