Centrifugal modulation from the midbrain, pons and medulla of the spinal nociceptive tail flick (TF) reflex evoked by graded noxious heating of the tail was studied in lightly pentobarbital-anaesthetized rats. In initial experiments, the relationship between the intensity of the noxious thermal stimulus and the TF latency was characterized. The thermal stimulus was provided by a lamp focused on the ventral surface of a rat's tail. Five different rates of heating of the tail were varied systematically by altering the voltage supplied to the lamp and were characterized using a thermocouple to measure the temperature of tissue exposed to the radiant heat. A linear stimulus-response function relating the inverse of the latency of the TF to the rate of heating of the tail was established. However, the mean cutaneous tissue temperature of the exposed tail at the time of the TF was found to be invariant and independent of the rate of heating. Focal electrical stimulation in the midbrain, pons and medulla modulated the TF reflex in two different ways, analogous to modulations of stimulus-response functions of single-cell recordings of spinal dorsal horn neurons. A Type I modulation, analogous to the parallel shift in response threshold seen in spinal dorsal horn neurons, was an absolute increase in the thermal threshold of the TF reflex. A Type II modulation, analogous to a change in slope or gain seen in spinal dorsal horn neurons, was a linear increase in the thermal threshold of the TF reflex as a function of the rate of heating. Type I modulations were produced by electrical stimulation in the ventromedial medulla (n. raphe magnus and n. reticularis gigantocellularis) and lateral periaqueductal gray of the midbrain. Type II modulations were produced by electrical stimulation in the dorsolateral pons, locus coeruleus-subcoeruleus and in the medial periaqueductal gray. This experimental approach has shown itself to be useful in the characterization of descending inhibition of nociception. Much simpler and less invasive than analogous spinal dorsal horn single cell electrophysiologic studies, it can be used to study the mechanisms of centrifugal modulation of nociceptive flexion reflexes and further establishes the utility of the lightly anaesthetized rat preparation for studies of nociception-antinociception. © 1986.