Adenosine is an inhibitory modulator in the mammalian brain with a possible role in sleep regulation, which is mainly indicated by pharmacological studies showing that adenosine or its analogs can induce sedation and sleep, whereas adenosine antagonists, like caffeine and theophylline, are potent behavioral and neuronal stimulants. In contrast to these pharmacological findings, data on endogenous adenosine in relation to sleep and waking are sparse. Therefore, we have now used in vivo microdialysis to investigate the extracellular levels of adenosine in the neostriatum and hippocampus of freely moving rats. Adenosine was monitored over a time course of 24 h, during which the animals were exposed to a 12 h day/night rhythm with lights-off from 19.00 to 07.00. In this lights-off period, i.e. the rats' active period, the maximal levels of neostriatal and hippocampal extracellular adenosine were higher than during the lights-on period. In contrast to the neostriatum, extracellular levels of hippocampal adenosine tended to increase towards the end of the lights-off period, reaching its maximal level at 07.00, and decreasing again within the following hour. The changes of hippocampal adenosine levels were related to behavior, since significant increases in "sleep-like" behavior, as well as decreases in overall movements and consummatory behavior, were observed when adenosine levels had reached their maxima in the hippocampus; no such relationship was found with respect to the neostriatum. These results are in keeping with a role of endogenous adenosine in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness, and point to a specific role of adenosine in the hippocampus. They also raise the possibility that adenosine may be involved in different behavioral processes dependent on the area of the brain, as well as the type of adenosine receptor involved. Finally, given the known evidence for neuroprotective actions of adenosine, its accumulation in the hippocampus as a function of behavioral activity may serve to prevent or repair the neural degenerative consequences of such activity. It is proposed that adenosine's sleep-promoting effects result from its signalling to cease behavioral activity in order to prevent excessive activity-related changes, and thus allow other restorative sleep-related processes to take over.