A critical review of the evidences relating the biogenic amines serotonin and norepinephrine to the states of slow-wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is presented. Various alternative explanations for specific chemical regulation of the individual sleep states, including the phasic events of REM sleep, are evaluated within the overall framework of the monoamine theory of sleep. Several critical neuropsychopharmacological studies relating to metabolsim of the amines in relation to sleep-waking behavior are presented. Models of the chemical neuronal circuitry involved in sleep-waking activity are derived and interactions between several brainstem nuclei, particularly the raphé complex and locus coeruleus, are discussed. Activity in these aminergic systems in relation to oscillations in the sleep-waking cycles is evaluated. In particular, the assessment of single cell activity in specific chemical systems in relations to chemical models of sleep is reviewed. Overall, it appears that the biogenic amines, especially serotonin and norepinephrine, play key roles in the generation and maintenance of the sleep states. These neurotransmitters participate in some manner in the "triggering" processes necessary for actuating each sleep phase and in regulating the transitions from sleep to waking activity. The biogenic amines are, however, probably not "sleep factors" or direct inducers of the sleep states. Rather, they appear to be components of a multiplicity of interacting chemical circuitry in the brain whose activity maintains various chemical balances in different brain regions. Shifts in these balances appear to be involved in the triggering and maintenance of the various states comprising the vigilance continuum.