In the decade immediately following the discovery of REM sleep (Aserinsky and Kleitman, 1953), scientists in the United States and in Europe made a second, striking observation (Jouvet-Mounier et al., 1970; Roffwarg et al., 1966; Valatx et al., 1964). In several mammalian species, including humans, REM sleep amounts were two to three times higher in infancy than in adulthood, and then declined dramatically across development. This basic ontogenetic pattern has now been observed in a wide variety of mammals (Davis et al., 1999; Thurber et al., 2008; Walker and Berger, 1980) and suggests that REM sleep may play a crucial role in brain development. In this chapter, I review the evidence in support of this general hypothesis. I begin with an overview of several landmark events in the ontogenesis of sleep and sleep regulation to provide context to the more function-based discussions that follow. I then discuss the results of several studies that provide indirect or suggestive evidence of a role for REM sleep in general brain maturation. This is followed by a review of findings in the developing visual system that more specifically address a possible role for REM sleep in brain development and plasticity.
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