Sleep deprivation severely compromises the ability of human beings to respond to stimuli in a timely fashion. These deficits have been attributed in large part to failures of vigilant attention, which many theorists believe forms the bedrock of the other more complex components of cognition. One of the leading paradigms used as an assay of vigilant attention is the psychomotor vigilance test (PVT), a high signal-load reaction-time test that is extremely sensitive to sleep deprivation. Over the last twenty years, four dominant findings have emerged from the use of this paradigm. First, sleep deprivation results in an overall slowing of responses. Second, sleep deprivation increases the propensity of individuals to lapse for lengthy periods (>500 ms), as well as make errors of commission. Third, sleep deprivation enhances the time-on-task effect within each test bout. Finally, PVT results during extended periods of wakefulness reveal the presence of interacting circadian and homeostatic sleep drives. A theme that links these findings is the interplay of "top-down" and "bottom-up" attention in producing the unstable and unpredictable patterns of behavior that are the hallmark of the sleep-deprived state.