The role of the serotonergic system in the regulation of hamster circadian rhythms was analyzed using intraventricular injection of the selective neurotoxin, 5,7-dihydroxytryptamine (5,7-DHT). Sixty days after 5,7-DHT administration, immunoreactive serotonin in the forebrain, particularly the suprachiasmatic nuclei and intergeniculate leaflets, was severely depleted in 16 animals, moderately depleted in four and only slightly affected in four. 5,7-DHT produced an immediate and sustained advance of the onset of running wheel activity relative to the 24 h light-dark (LD) cycle. Activity onset occurred 0.7 +/- 0.07 h before lights out among 5,7-DHT-treated animals compared with 0.18 +/- 0.04 h after lights out for vehicle-infused controls. This new, advanced phase angle of entrainment was maintained throughout the 60-day period of the study while the animals remained in a LD cycle, including after an 8-h phase advance of the light cycle. 5,7-DHT treatment also delayed the offset of wheelrunning in 16 of 24 animals and reduced the likelihood of a smooth pattern of reentrainment to the shifted LD cycle. The drug treatment did not affect circadian period in constant darkness, the rate of reentrainment to an 8-h phase advance or the amount of wheelrunning activity per day. In addition, 5,7-DHT treatment had no effect on the ability of triazolam, a short-acting benzodiazepine, to accelerate the rate of reentrainment to an 8-h phase advance. These observations show that ascending projections of midbrain raphe serotonin neurons participate in the regulation of the circadian activity phase but are not required for triazolam-induced acceleration of reentrainment to a phase-advanced LD cycle.