Extracellular 5-HT in the anterior hypothalamus/preoptic area (AH/POA) and caudate nucleus of the freely moving cat was measured using in vivo brain microdialysis. Administration of 8-OH-DPAT, a 5-HT1A receptor agonist that decreases 5-HT neuronal activity, decreased extracellular 5-HT in both brain areas. Extracellular 5-HT levels were also examined in relationship to the sleep-wake cycle, because previous data from our laboratory have indicated that behavioral state is the primary determinant of 5-HT neuronal discharge. As with 5-HT neuronal discharge, extracellular 5-HT was increased during active behavioral states and decreased during somnolent periods. These first two sets of findings confirm the ability of the microdialysis technique to measure physiological fluctuations in extracellular 5-HT levels and support the hypothesis that neuronal discharge is a major determinant of extracellular 5-HT levels. Levels of the 5-HT metabolite 5- hydroxyindole acetic acid (5-HIAA) in the AH/POA were also responsive to changes in behavioral state and administration of 8-OH-DPAT, though fluctuations in extracellular 5-HIAA were less robust and temporally delayed. Finally, extracellular 5-HT and 5-HIAA were examined in the AH/POA during fever induced by systemic injection of the synthetic pyrogen muramyl dipeptide. Previous data from our laboratory have indicated that 5-HT neuronal activity is unaffected by this manipulation, though 5-HT has been implicated specifically in thermoregulation. Pyrogen-induced hypothermia produced no specific change in 5-HT efflux, because any changes noted could be accounted for by behavioral state changes. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that the brain serotonergic system is closely linked to the sleep-wake-arousal cycle. However, extracellular 5-HT may be involved in thermoregulatory processes as part of a global role in modulating neuronal activity in coordination with the behavioral state of the animal.