The temporal and quantitative interrelationships between the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity and the level of central arousal were studied in 10 healthy young men during daytime wakefulness. Two experimental sessions were conducted randomly between 09.00 and 18.00 h, once after nocturnal sleep and once after a night of total sleep deprivation. Spectral analysis of serial waking electroencephalography (EEG) from a short target fixation task repeated every 10 min was undertaken, along with an estimation of cortisol secretory profiles by deconvolution of plasma radioimmunoassay measures obtained from continuous blood withdrawal with regular sampling at a 10-min interval. Following nocturnal sleep, a temporal association between the HPA axis activity and the waking EEG activity was found, cortisol secretory rate following changes in frontal gamma (20-45 Hz) band power by 10 min (average R = 0.458, p < 0.001). Although it remained significant (average R = 0.276, p < 0.05), the association strength decreased significantly following total sleep deprivation (p < 0.05, Wilcoxon test). Cortisol plasma level, secretory rate and pulse amplitude were increased as well as waking EEG power in the delta (0.5-5.5 Hz), theta (5.5-8.5 Hz) and gamma frequency bands (all p values <0.05, Student t tests). The sleep deprivation-related increases in cortisol secretory rate and waking EEG gamma activity were quantitatively associated (R = 0.504, p < 0.05). These results support the existence of a common ultradian regulatory mechanism, co-ordinating HPA axis activity to the level of central arousal in man, which seems involved in the sleep deprivation-induced hyper-arousal.