In several brain areas, extracellular adenosine (AD) levels are higher during waking than sleep and during prolonged wakefulness AD levels in the basal forebrain increase progressively. Similarly, c-Fos levels in several brain areas are higher during waking than sleep and remain elevated during prolonged wakefulness. In the present study, we investigated the effect of extracellular AD levels on c-Fos protein and activator protein-1 (AP1) binding in the basal forebrain of rats. Increased levels of extracellular AD were induced either by keeping the animals awake, or by local perfusion of AD into the basal forebrain. During prolonged wakefulness extracellular AD concentration was monitored using in vivo microdialysis. The effect of AD perfusion on the behavioral states was recorded using polysomnography. At the end of the perfusion period the basal forebrain tissue was analyzed for the levels of c-Fos protein and AP1 binding. In vivo microdialysis measurements showed an increase in AD levels with prolonged wakefulness. Unilateral perfusion of AD (300 microM) increased non-REM sleep and delta power (0.5 to 4 Hz) when compared to rats perfused with artificial CSF. The levels of c-Fos protein and the AP1 DNA binding were high in the basal forebrain of both sleep-deprived animals and in animals perfused with AD. The results suggest that AD might mediate, at least in part, the long term effects of sleep deprivation by inducing c-Fos protein and subsequent AP1 binding.