The effects of neocortical spreading depression (SD) on the expression of immunoreactive c-fos protein were examined within the superficial laminae of trigeminal nucleus caudalis (TNC), a brainstem region processing nociceptive information. KCl was microinjected into the left parietal cortex at 9 min intervals over 1 hr, and SD was detected by a shift in interstitial DC potential within adjacent frontal cortex. The stained cells in lower brainstem and upper cervical spinal cord were counted on both sides after tissues were sectioned (50 microns) and processed for c-fos protein-like immunoreactivity (LI) using a rabbit polyclonal antiserum. C-fos protein-LI was visualized in the ventrolateral TNC, chiefly in laminae I and Ilo and predominantly within spinal segment C1-2 (e.g., -1.5 to -4.5 mm from obex) ipsilaterally. SD significantly increased cell staining within ipsilateral TNC. The ratio of cells in laminae I and Ilo on the left: right sides was 1.32 +/- 0.13 after 1 M KCl, as compared to 1.06 +/- 0.05 in control animals receiving 1 M NaCl instead of KCl microinjections (p < 0.01). The ratio was reduced to an insignificant difference after chronic surgical transection of meningeal afferents and recurrent SD (1.09 +/- 0.11). Pretreatment with intravenous sumatriptan, a 5-HT1-like receptor agonist that selectively blocks meningeal C-fibers and attenuates c-fos protein-LI within TNC after noxious meningeal stimulation, also reduced the ratio to an insignificant difference (1.10 +/- 0.09). Sumatriptan or chronic surgical transection of meningeal afferents, however, did not reduce the ability of KCl microinjections to induce SD. On the other hand, combined hyperoxia and hypercapnia not only reduced the number of evoked SDs from 6.3 +/- 1.0 to 2.5 +/- 1.2 after 0.15 M KCl microinjection, but also significantly (p < 0.01) reduced associated c- fos protein-LI in TNC. These data indicate that multiple neocortical SDs activate cells within TNC. The increase in c-fos protein-LI, observed predominantly ipsilaterally, was probably mediated by SD- induced stimulation of ipsilaterally projecting unmyelinated C-fibers innervating the meninges. If true, this is the first report demonstrating that neurophysiological events within cerebral cortex can activate brainstem regions involved in the processing of nociceptive information via trigeminovascular mechanisms.