Serotonin [5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)] and 5-HT receptors are involved in sleep and in waking functions such as cognition and mood. Animal and human studies support a particular role for the 5-HT2A receptor in sleep, which has led to renewed interest in this receptor subtype as a target for the development of novel pharmacological agents to treat insomnia. Focusing primarily on findings in healthy human volunteers, a review of the available data suggests that antagonistic interaction with 5-HT2A receptors (and possibly also 5-HT2C receptors) prolongs the duration of slow wave sleep and enhances low-frequency (< 7 Hz) activity in the sleep electroencephalogram (EEG), a widely accepted marker of sleep intensity. Despite certain differences, the changes in sleep and the sleep EEG appear to be remarkably similar to those of physiologically more intense sleep after sleep deprivation. It is currently unclear whether these changes in sleep are associated with improved vigilance, cognition and mood during wakefulness. While drug-induced interaction with sleep must be interpreted cautiously, too few studies are available to provide a clear answer to this question. Moreover, functional relationships between sleep and waking functions may differ between healthy controls and patients with sleep disorders. A multimodal approach investigating subjective and objective aspects of sleep and wakefulness provides a promising research avenue for shedding light on the complex relationships among 5-HT2A/2C receptor-mediated effects on sleep, the sleep EEG, cognition and mood in health and various diseases associated with disturbed sleep and waking functions.