The biological function of REM sleep is defined in terms of the functions of neural processes that selectively operate during the REM sleep state. The high amounts of REM sleep expressed by the young during a period of central nervous system plasticity suggest that one function of REM sleep is in development. The phenomenon of activity-dependent development has been clearly shown to be one mechanism by which early sensory experience can affect the course of neural development. Activity-dependent development may be a ubiquitous process in brain maturation by which activity in one brain region can influence the developmental course of other regions. We hypothesize an ontogenetic function of REM sleep; namely, the widespread control of neuronal activity exerted by specific REM sleep processes help to direct brain maturation through activity-dependent developmental mechanisms. Preliminary tests of the hypothesis have been conducted in the developing feline visual system, which has long been known to incorporate information derived from visual experience in establishing neuronal connectivity. We find that suppression of REM sleep processes by an instrumental REM deprivation procedure results in a significant enhancement of the effects of altered visual experience by monocular occlusion. Bilateral brainstem lesions that selectively block the occurrence of ponto-geniculo-occipital (PGO) waves are sufficient to produce similar results. These data indicate that the propagation of phasic influences during REM sleep interacts with other processes subserving neural development. This source of influence appears not to derive from the environment but rather stems from an intrinsic source of genetic origin. Examination of the neural activity associated with PGO waves in the lateral geniculate nucleus reveals a distribution of facilitatory influence markedly different from that induced by visual experience. We conclude that REM sleep directs the course of brain maturation in early life through the control of neural activity.