Serotonin (5-HT) has been implicated in many central nervous system-mediated functions including sleep, arousal, feeding, motor activity and the stress response. In order to help establish the precise role of 5-HT in physiology and behavior, in vivo microdialysis studies have sought to identify the conditions under which the release of 5-HT is altered. Extracellular 5-HT levels have been monitored in more than fifteen regions of the brain during a variety of spontaneous behaviors, and in response to several physiological, environmental, and behavioral manipulations. The vast majority of these studies found increases (30-100%) in 5-HT release in almost all brain regions studied. Since electrophysiological studies have shown that behavioral arousal is the primary determinant of brain serotonergic neuronal activity, we suggest that the increase in 5-HT release seen during a wide variety of experimental conditions is largely due to one factor, namely an increase in behavioral arousal/motor activity associated with the manipulation.