The locus coeruleus (LC), the major noradrenergic nucleus of the brain, gives rise to fibres innervating most structures of the neuraxis. Recent advances in neuroscience have helped to unravel the neuronal circuitry controlling a number of physiological functions in which the LC plays a central role. Two such functions are the regulation of arousal and autonomic activity, which are inseparably linked largely via the involvement of the LC. Alterations in LC activity due to physiological or pharmacological manipulations or pathological processes can lead to distinct patterns of change in arousal and autonomic function. Physiological manipulations considered here include the presentation of noxious or anxiety- provoking stimuli and extremes in ambient temperature. The modification of LC-controlled functions by drug administration is discussed in detail, including drugs which directly modify the activity of LC neurones (e.g., via autoreceptors, storage, reuptake) or have an indirect effect through modulating excitatory or inhibitory inputs. The early vulnerability of the LC to the ageing process and to neurodegenerative disease (Parkinsons and Alzheimers diseases) is of considerable clinical significance. In general, physiological manipulations and the administration of stimulant drugs, α2-adrenoceptor antagonists and noradrenaline uptake inhibitors increase LC activity and thus cause heightened arousal and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. In contrast, the administration of sedative drugs, including α2-adrenoceptor agonists, and pathological changes in LC function in neurodegenerative disorders and ageing reduce LC activity and result in sedation and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.