Spontaneous pupillary-behavior in darkness provides information about a subject's level of sleepiness. In the present work, pupil measurements in complete darkness and quiet have been recorded continuously over 11-minute period with infrared video pupillography at 25 Hz. The data have been analyzed to yield three parameters describing pupil behavior; the power of diameter variation at frequencies below 0.8 Hz (slow changes in pupil size), the pupillary unrest index, and the average pupil size. To investigate the changes of these parameters in sleep deprivation, spontaneous pupillary behavior in darkness was recorded every 2 hours in 13 healthy subjects from 19:00 to 07:00 during forced wakefulness. On each occasion, comparative subjective sleepiness was assessed with a self-rating scale (Stanford Sleepiness Scale, SSS). The power of slow pupillary oscillations (< or = 0.8 Hz) increased significantly and so did the values of SSS, while basic pupil diameter decreased significantly. Slow pupillary oscillations and SSS did not correlate well in general but high values of pupil parameters were always associated with high values in subjective rating. Our results demonstrate a strong relationship between ongoing sleep deprivation and typical changes in the frequency profiles of spontaneous pupillary oscillations and the tendency to instability in pupil size in normals. These findings suggest that the results of pupil data analysis permit an objective measurement of sleepiness.