Serotonergic neurons were recorded in the nucleus raphe magnus in freely moving cats and were initially identified on-line by their characteristic slow and regular spontaneous activity during quiet waking (3.42 +/- 0.33 spikes/s; mean +/- SE). Discharge rates of these serotonergic neurons were highest during active waking (4.49 +/- 0.40 spikes/s), intermediate during slow-wave sleep (middle: 2.14 +/- 0.23 spikes/s), and lowest during REM sleep (0.20 +/- 0.03 spikes/s). Although these cells fired at a rate 31.3% higher during active waking than during quiet waking, their activity displayed no correlation with phasic elevations of the nuchal EMG or overt body movements. In addition, no relationship was observed between the activity of these neurons during slow-wave sleep and the occurrence of sleep spindles in the cortical EEG or pontogeniculooccipital waves recorded from the lateral geniculate nucleus. Serotonergic neurons of nucleus raphe magnus were also relatively unresponsive to phasic auditory and visual stimuli, with about half of the cells examined showing weak excitatory responses. These neurons did respond, however, to the administration of a small dose of the serotonin specific agonist, 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (250 micrograms/kg, i.m.) with a mean decrease in unit activity of 73.6 +/- 4.5%. The results of this study are compared with those previously reported for serotonergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus, nucleus centralis superior, and nucleus raphe pallidus of freely moving cats.