Several pieces of evidence suggest that sleep deprivation causes marked alterations in neurotransmitter receptor function in diverse neuronal cell types. To date, this has been studied mainly in wake- and sleep-promoting areas of the brain and in the hippocampus, which is implicated in learning and memory. This article reviews findings linking sleep deprivation to modifications in neurotransmitter receptor function, including changes in receptor subunit expression, ligand affinity and signal transduction mechanisms. We focus on studies using sleep deprivation procedures that control for side-effects such as stress. We classify the changes with respect to their functional consequences on the activity of wake-promoting and/or sleep-promoting systems. We suggest that elucidation of how sleep deprivation affects neurotransmitter receptor function will provide functional insight into the detrimental effects of sleep loss.