To determine whether human hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis activity is related to the alertness level during wakefulness, 10 healthy young men were studied under resting conditions in the daytime (0900-1800 h) after an 8-h nighttime sleep (2300-0700 h). A serial 70-sec gaze fixation task was required every 10 min throughout the daytime experimental session. The corresponding waking electroencephalographic (EEG) segments were submitted to quantitative spectral analysis, from which EEG beta activity (absolute power density in the 13-35 Hz frequency band), an index of central alertness, was computed. Blood was collected continuously through an indwelling venous catheter and sampled at 10-min intervals. Plasma cortisol concentrations were measured by RIA, and the corresponding secretory rates were determined by a deconvolution procedure. Analysis of individual profiles demonstrated a declining tendency for EEG beta activity and cortisol secretory rate, with an overall temporal relationship indicated by positive and significant cross-correlation coefficients between the two variables in all subjects (average r=0.565, P < 0.001). Changes in cortisol secretion lagged behind fluctuations in EEG beta activity, with an average delay of 10 min for all the subjects. On the average, 4.6+/-0.4 cortisol secretory pulses and 4.9+/-0.5 peaks in EEG beta activity were identified by a detection algorithm. A significant, although not systematic, association between the episodes in the two variables was found: 44% of the peaks in EEG beta activity (relative amplitude, near 125%; P < 0.001) occurred during an ascending phase of cortisol secretion, cortisol secretory rates increasing by 40% (P < 0.01) 10-min after peaks in EEG beta activity. However, no significant change in EEG beta activity was observed during the period from 50 min before to 50 min after pulses in cortisol secretion. In conclusion, the present study describes a temporal coupling between cortisol release and central alertness, as reflected in the waking EEG beta activity. These findings suggest the existence of connections between the mechanisms involved in the control of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal activity and the activation processes of the brain, which undergoes varying degrees of alertness throughout daytime wakefulness.