Prolonged sleep deprivation in rats causes an unexplained hypercatabolic state, secondary malnutrition symptoms, and mortality. The nature of the vital impairment has long been a mystery. Its determination would help to elucidate the type of organic dysfunction that sleep prevents. There are no gross detectable disturbances in intermediary metabolism, clinical chemistry, or hematological indexes that provide substantial clues to the mediation of sleep-deprivation effects. Furthermore, postmortem examinations reveal no systematic morphological or histopathological findings. Taken together, the cachexia and the absence of evidence of structural damage or organ dysfunction pointed to involvement of a regulatory system that was diffuse, possibly the immune system. Blood cultures revealed invasion by opportunistic microbes to which there was no febrile response. These results suggest that the life-threatening condition of prolonged sleep deprivation is a breakdown of host defense against indigenous and pathogenic microorganisms.