The sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is postulated to result from a failure of homeostatic responses to life-threatening challenges (e.g. asphyxia, hypercapnia) during sleep. The ventral medulla participates in sleep-related homeostatic responses, including chemoreception, arousal, airway reflex control, thermoregulation, respiratory drive, and blood pressure regulation, in part via serotonin and its receptors. The ventral medulla in humans contains the arcuate nucleus, in which we have shown isolated defects in muscarinic and kainate receptor binding in SIDS victims. We also have demonstrated that the arcuate nucleus is anatomically linked to the nucleus raphé obscurus, a medullary region with serotonergic neurons. We tested the hypothesis that serotonergic receptor binding is decreased in both the arcuate nucleus and nucleus raphé obscurus in SIDS victims. Using quantitative autoradiography, 3H-lysergic acid diethylamide (3H-LSD binding) to serotonergic receptors (5-HT1A-D and 5-HT2 subtypes) was measured blinded in 19 brainstem nuclei. Cases were classified as SIDS (n = 52), acute controls (infants who died suddenly and in whom a complete autopsy established a cause of death) (n = 15), or chronic cases with oxygenation disorders (n = 17). Serotonergic binding was significantly lowered in the SIDS victims compared with controls in the arcuate nucleus (SIDS, 6 +/- 1 fmol/mg tissue; acutes, 19 +/- 1; and chronics, 16 +/- 1; p = 0.0001) and n. raphé obscurus (SIDS, 28 +/- 3 fmol/mg tissue; acutes, 66 +/- 6; and chronics, 59 +/- 1; p = 0.0001). Binding, however, was also significantly lower (p < 0.05) in 4 other regions that are integral parts of the medullary raphé/serotonergic system, and/or are derived, like the arcuate nucleus and nucleus raphé obscurus, from the same embryonic anlage (rhombic lip). These data suggest that a larger neuronal network than the arcuate nucleus alone is involved in the pathogenesis of SIDS, that is, a network composed of inter-related serotonergic nuclei of the ventral medulla that are involved in homeostatic mechanisms, and/or are derived from a common embryonic anlage.