Serotonin and the sleep/wake cycle: special emphasis on microdialysis studies

Prog Neurobiol. 2000 Jan;60(1):13-35. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(98)00097-5.


Several areas in the brainstem and forebrain are important for the modulation and expression of the sleep/wake cycle. Even if the first observations of biochemical events in relation to sleep were made only 40 years ago, it is now well established that several neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and neurohormones are involved in the modulation of the sleep/wake cycle. Serotonin has been known for many years to play a role in the modulation of sleep, however, it is still very controversial how and where serotonin may operate this modulation. Early studies suggested that serotonin is necessary to obtain and maintain behavioral sleep (permissive role on sleep). However, more recent microdialysis experiments provide evidence that the level of serotonin during W is higher in most cortical and subcortical areas receiving serotonergic projections. In this view the level of extracellular serotonin would be consistent with the pattern of discharge of the DRN serotonergic neurons which show the highest firing rate during W, followed by a decrease in slow wave sleep and by virtual electrical silence during REM sleep. This suggests that during waking serotonin may complement the action of noradrenaline and acetylcholine in promoting cortical responsiveness and participate to the inhibition of REM-sleep effector neurons in the brainstem (inhibitory role on REM sleep). The apparent inconsistency between an inhibitory and a facilitatory role played by serotonin on sleep has at least two possible explanations. On the one hand serotonergic modulation on the sleep/wake cycle takes place through a multitude of post-synaptic receptors which mediate different or even opposite responses; on the other hand the achievement of a behavioral state depends on the complex interaction between the serotonergic and other neurotransmitter systems. The main aim of this commentary is to review the role of brain serotonin in relation to the sleep/wake cycle. In particular we highlight the importance of microdialysis for on-line monitoring of the level of serotonin in different areas of the brain across the sleep/wake cycle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Microdialysis
  • Serotonin / physiology*
  • Sleep Stages / physiology*
  • Wakefulness / physiology*


  • Serotonin