The separate contribution of circadian rhythmicity and elapsed time awake on electroencephalographic (EEG) activity during wakefulness was assessed. Seven men lived in an environmental scheduling facility for 4 weeks and completed fourteen 42.85-h 'days', each consisting of an extended (28.57-h) wake episode and a 14.28-h sleep opportunity. The circadian rhythm of plasma melatonin desynchronized from the 42.85-h day. This allowed quantification of the separate contribution of circadian phase and elapsed time awake to variation in EEG power spectra (1-32 Hz). EEG activity during standardized behavioral conditions was markedly affected by both circadian phase and elapsed time awake in an EEG frequency- and derivation-specific manner. The nadir of the circadian rhythm in alpha (8-12 Hz) activity in both fronto-central and occipito-parietal derivations occurred during the biological night, close to the crest of the melatonin rhythm. The nadir of the circadian rhythm of theta (4.5-8 Hz) and beta (20-32 Hz) activity in the fronto-central derivation was located close to the onset of melatonin secretion, i.e. during the wake maintenance zone. As time awake progressed, delta frequency (1-4.5 Hz) and beta (20-32 Hz) activity rose monotonically in frontal derivations. The interaction between the circadian and wake-dependent increase in frontal delta was such that the intrusion of delta was minimal when sustained wakefulness coincided with the biological day, but pronounced during the biological night. Our data imply that the circadian pacemaker facilitates frontal EEG activation during the wake maintenance zone, by generating an arousal signal that prevents the intrusion of low-frequency EEG components, the propensity for which increases progressively during wakefulness.