The consequences of sleep and sleep deprivation at the molecular level are largely unexplored. Knowledge of such molecular events is essential to understand the restorative processes occurring during sleep as well as the cellular mechanisms of sleep regulation. Here we review the available data about changes in neural gene expression across different behavioural states using candidate gene approaches such as in situ hybridization and immunocytochemistry. We then describe new techniques for systematic screening of gene expression in the brain, such as subtractive hybridization, mRNA differential display, and cDNA microarray technology, outlining advantages and disadvantages of these methods. Finally, we summarize our initial results of a systematic screening of gene expression in the rat brain across behavioural states using mRNA differential display and cDNA microarray technology. The expression pattern of ≈ 7000 genes was analysed in the cerebral cortex of rats after 3 h of spontaneous sleep, 3 h of spontaneous waking, or 3 h of sleep deprivation. While the majority of transcripts were expressed at the same level among these three conditions, 14 mRNAs were modulated by sleep and waking. Six transcripts, four more expressed in waking and two more expressed in sleep, corresponded to novel genes. The eight known transcripts were all expressed at higher levels in waking than in sleep and included transcription factors and mitochondrial genes. A possible role for these known transcripts in mediating neural plasticity during waking is discussed.