Ventilatory data, including timing and partitioning of ventilation, were obtained from six subjects with advanced Duchenne muscular dystrophy, aged 16 to 22 years, during polysomnography on two consecutive nights; the subjects were randomized to breathing air or oxygen. Five of the six patients developed oxygen desaturation exceeding 5 percent during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep while breathing air. Minute ventilation on air (the mean of at least six consecutive minutes) was 6.9 +/- 0.7 (SEM) L min-1 but fell, owing to decreases in both tidal volume and frequency, to 4.9 +/- 0.3 L min-1 (p less than 0.05) in slow wave sleep and to 4.5 +/- 0.6 L min-1 (p less than 0.05) in REM sleep. Similar falls were seen on oxygen. The variability of all ventilatory data was significantly greater in REM than non-REM (NREM) sleep. The mean abdominal contribution to breathing was lower than predicted for wakefulness and all sleep stages, and two subjects showed paradoxical abdominal movement in NREM sleep; a correlation (p less than 0.05) existed between the NREM abdominal (diaphragmatic) contribution and the extent of oxygen desaturation subsequently seen in REM. We conclude that although awake minute ventilation is normal in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, hypoventilation occurs in all sleep stages, and those with diaphragmatic dysfunction are especially vulnerable to oxygen desaturation during REM sleep.