The pallido-subthalamic pathway powerfully controls the output of the basal ganglia circuitry and has been implicated in movement disorders observed in Parkinson's disease (PD). To investigate the normal functioning of this pathway across the sleep–wake cycle, single-unit activities of subthalamic nucleus (STN) and globus pallidus (GP) neurons were examined, together with cortical electroencephalogram and nuchal muscular activity, in non-anaesthetized head-restrained rats. STN neurons shifted from a random discharge in wakefulness (W) to a bursting pattern in slow wave sleep (SWS), without any change in their mean firing rate. This burst discharge occurred in the 1–2 Hz range, but was not correlated with cortical slow wave activity. In contrast, GP neurons, with a mean firing rate higher in W than in SWS, exhibited a relatively regular discharge whatever the state of vigilance. During paradoxical sleep, both STN and GP neurons increased markedly their mean firing rate relative to W and SWS. Our results are not in agreement with the classical ‘direct/indirect’ model of the basal ganglia organization, as an inverse relationship between STN and GP activities is not observed under normal physiological conditions. Actually, because the STN discharge pattern appears dependent on coincident cortical activity, this nucleus can hardly be viewed as a relay along the indirect pathway, but might rather be considered as an input stage conveying corticothalamic information to the basal ganglia.