The direct current (DC) potential recorded from the scalp of awake humans has been considered a reflection of general changes in cortical excitability. This study examined DC potential shifts in humans during a night of continuous sleep. Standard polysomnographic recordings and skin temperature were measured simultaneously. Contrary to expectations, average DC potential level indicated higher negativity during nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep than REM sleep and wakefulness. Moreover, a dynamic regulation of the DC potential level was revealed in association with the NREM-REM sleep cycle comprising four successive phases: (i) a steep 'NREM-transition-negative shift' during the initial 10-15 min of the NREM sleep period; (ii) a more subtle 'NREM-positive slope' during the subsequent NREM sleep period; (iii) a steep 'REM-transition-positive shift' starting shortly prior to the REM sleep period, and (iv) a 'REM-negative slope', characterizing the remaining greater part of the REM sleep period. DC potential changes were only weakly related to changes in slow-wave activity (r2 < 0.18). The NREM-negative slope and REM-positive slope could reflect, respectively, gradually increasing and decreasing cortical excitability resulting from widespread changes in the depolarization of apical dendrites. In contrast, the NREM-transition-negative shift and the REM-transition-positive shift may reflect the progression and retrogression, respectively, of a long-lasting hyperpolarization in deeply lying neurons.