Using positron emission tomography (PET) it is possible to perform an in vivo study of cerebral physiological and biochemical processes in man. Employing this technique in sleep studies, decreased cerebral metabolic rates for glucose during slow wave sleep compared with those seen during wakefulness were first demonstrated, whereas similar rates of cerebral glucose metabolism were observed during paradoxical sleep and wakefulness. More recently, regional modifications of cerebral blood flow during sleep have also been demonstrated. During slow wave sleep, cerebral blood flow is decreased particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Rapid eye movement sleep is characterized by activation of the pons, thalami, amygdaloid complexes and a number of cortical areas (e.g. the anterior cingulate cortex). Although data remain incomplete, a variety of sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, fatal familial insomnia and continuous spike-and-wave discharges during slow sleep have been investigated. These results are briefly reviewed.