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Systemic glucose utilization declines during sleep in man. We tested the hypothesis that this decline in utilization is largely accounted for by reduced brain glucose metabolism. 10 normal subjects underwent internal jugular and radial artery cannulation to determine cerebral blood flow by N2O equilibrium technique and to quantitate cross-brain glucose and oxygen differences before and every 3 h during sleep. Sleep stage was graded by continuous electroencephalogram, and systemic glucose turnover was estimated by isotope dilution. Brain glucose metabolism fell from 33.6 +/- 2.2 mumol/100 g per min (mean +/- SE) before sleep (2300 h) to a mean nadir of 24.3 +/- 1.1 mumol/100 g per min at 0300 h during sleep (P = 0.001). Corresponding rates of systemic glucose utilization fell from 13.2 +/- 0.8 to 11.0 +/- 0.5 mumol/kg per min (P = 0.003). Diminished brain glucose metabolism was the product of a reduced arteriovenous glucose difference, 0.643 +/- 0.024 to 0.546 +/- 0.020 mmol/liter (P = 0.002), and cerebral blood flow, 50.3 +/- 2.8 to 44.6 +/- 1.4 cc/100 g per min (P = 0.021). Brain oxygen metabolism fell commensurately from 153.4 +/- 11.8 to 128.0 +/- 8.4 mumol/100 g per min (P = 0.045). The observed reduction in brain metabolism occurred independent of stage of central nervous system electrical activity (electroencephalographic data), and was more closely linked to duration of sleep. We conclude that a decline in brain glucose metabolism is a significant determinant of falling rates of systemic glucose utilization during sleep.