The pathophysiology of spontaneous upbeat (UBN) and downbeat (DBN) nystagmus is reviewed in the light of several instructive clinical findings and experimental data. UBN due to pontine lesions could result from damage to the ventral tegmental tract (VTT), originating in the superior vestibular nucleus (SVN), coursing through the ventral pons and transmitting excitatory upward vestibular signals to the third nerve nucleus. A VTT lesion probably leads to relative hypoactivity of the drive to the motoneurons of the elevator muscles with, consequently, an imbalance between the downward and upward systems, resulting in a downward slow phase. The results observed in internuclear ophthalmoplegia suggest that the medial longitudinal fasciculus (MLF) is involved in the transmission of both upward and downward vestibular signals. Since no clinical cases of DBN due to focal brainstem damage have been reported, it may be assumed that the transmission of downward vestibular signals depends only upon the MLF, whereas that of upward vestibular signals involves both the MLF and the VTT. The main focal lesions resulting in DBN affect the cerebellar flocculus and/or paraflocculus. Apparently, this structure tonically inhibits the SVN and its excitatory efferent tract (i.e. the VTT) but not the downward vestibular system. Therefore, a floccular lesion could result in a disinhibition of the SVN-VTT pathway with, consequently, relative hyperactivity of the drive to the motoneurons of the elevator muscles, resulting in an upward slow phase. UBN also results from lesions affecting the caudal medulla. An area in this region could form part of a feedback loop involved in upward gaze-holding, originating in a collateral branch of the VTT and comprising the caudal medulla, the flocculus and the SVN, successively. Therefore, it is suggested that the main types of spontaneous vertical nystagmus due to focal central lesions result from a primary dysfunction of the SVN-VTT pathway, which becomes hypoactive after pontine or caudal medullary lesions, thereby eliciting UBN, and hyperactive after floccular lesions, thereby eliciting DBN. Lastly, since gravity influences UBN and DBN and may facilitate the downward vestibular system and restrain the upward vestibular system, it is hypothesized that the excitatory SVN-VTT pathway, along with its specific floccular inhibition, has developed to counteract the gravity pull. This anatomical hyperdevelopment is apparently associated with a physiological upward velocity bias, since the gain of all upward slow eye movements is greater than that of downward slow eye movements in normal human subjects and in monkeys.