Oxygen desaturation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) occurs during sleep and is most marked in REM sleep. REM is not a homogeneous state, consisting of phasic REM (PREM) (REMs, myoclonic twitches) and tonic REM (TREM) (muscle atonia, desynchronized electroencephalogram). In normals, onset of PREM produces transient changes in breathing pattern with a decrease in respiratory amplitude and an increase in frequency, which produce reductions in oxygen saturation (SaO2). Because it is reasonable to expect such breathing pattern changes to cause more desaturation in COPD, and because systematic all-night studies of PREM and TREM have not been reported, we studied 18 patients with severe COPD [Forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) = 25.7 +/- 3.5 (SEM) % predicted] during sleep and monitored SaO2 and breathing pattern in PREM and TREM. PREM made up 19.7% of total REM (4.6% total sleep time) but was associated with 81.7% of the total REM desaturations of greater than 5% (57.9% of all sleep desaturations of greater than 5%). With PREM onset, breathing pattern changed 72.5% of the time, most often with a transient decrease in amplitude and increase in frequency. Even though 27.5% of PREM was not associated with changes in breathing pattern and many PREM segments were very short, we were still able to show highly significant SaO2 differences between PREM and TREM. Mean TREM SaO2 was 88.0 +/- 1.2%; mean PREM SaO2 was 86.6 +/- 1.4%, with mean nadir SaO2 for individual PREM segments falling to 84.8 +/- 1.5%. Mean awake SaO2 was 89.7 +/- 0.8%. We conclude that in COPD the transition from TREM to PREM is associated with breathing pattern changes and oxygen desaturation. Differences in breathing pattern with PREM onset may be related to different effects of PREM processes on respiratory neurons and diaphragm motor neurons.