The rate of the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) among American Indian infants in the Northern Plains is almost 6 times higher than in U.S. white infants. In a study of infant mortality among Northern Plains Indians, we tested the hypothesis that receptor binding abnormalities to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) in SIDS cases, compared with autopsied controls, occur in regions of the medulla oblongata that contain 5-HT neurons and that are critical for the regulation of cardiorespiration and central chemosensitivity during sleep, i.e. the medullary 5-HT system. Tritiated-lysergic acid diethylamide binding to 5-HT(1A-D) and 5-HT2 receptors was measured in 19 brainstem nuclei in 23 SIDS and 6 control infants using tissue receptor autoradiography. Binding in the arcuate nucleus, a part of the medullary 5-HT system along the ventral surface, in the SIDS infants (mean age-adjusted binding 7.1 +/- 0.8 fmol/mg tissue, n = 23) was significantly lower than in controls (mean age-adjusted binding 13.1 +/- 1.6 fmol/mg tissue, n = 5) (p = 0.003). Binding also demonstrated significant diagnosis x age interactions (p < 0.04) in 4 other nuclei that are components of the 5-HT system. These data suggest that medullary 5-HT dysfunction can lead to sleep-related, sudden death in affected SIDS infants, and confirm the same binding abnormalities reported by us in a larger dataset of non-American Indian SIDS and control infants. This study also links 5-HT abnormalities in the arcuate nucleus with exposure to adverse prenatal exposures, i.e. cigarette smoking (p = 0.011) and alcohol (p = 0.075), during the periconceptional period or throughout pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke and/or alcohol may contribute to abnormal fetal medullary 5-HT development in SIDS infants.