Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dreams are real

When I was young I had a recurring dream that I was in a small town in a desert and I had lost my parents.  The town was a colorful collage of dusty roads, bright tents and intense citizens cloaked in veils and robes, their faces hidden from me at all times.  I somehow knew it was a dream but was powerless to change the direction. I was always lost, always without parents, and never able to escape the desert.  Lack of control in dreams is the norm for most of us but not for a small number of people who can experience lucid dreams.  Whilst in the dream state, as recorded by brain activity showing Rapid Eye Movement phase (REM sleep- the phase that is associated with dreaming), lucid dreamers can respond to external commands and can direct the course of their dreams.  This is a learned skill that has recently been put to use to determine whether brain activity in dreamers correlates with movement in non-dreamers.  German scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, in collaboration with scientists from the Charite hospital in Berlin, put sleepers into a magnetic resonance scanner and asked them to indicate when they were in a lucid dream state via eye movement.  The lucid dreamers were then asked to dream themselves clenching a fist while the researchers monitored their brain activity.  It seems the brain lit up in the same way as when the dreamers were awake and actually clenching a fist.

The major difference between dreaming and acting while awake seems to be the physical paralysis that accompanies the dream state that stops us from us from acting out the dream.  In some people this mechanism appears to be defective though.  People that develop Parkinson's Disease or a form of dementia called Lewy Body disease, sometimes suffer from sleep disorders where they appear to be acting out their dreams long before the actual disease appears.   These disturbed sleepers are usually unaware of their nighttime antics which can cause harm to their bed partners through punching and kicking. Violent nights that leave the sleeper oblivious can go on for up to 50 years before the Parkinson's or dementia reveals itself and occur in 60-80% of patients.  My own father who I have blogged about often, would throw himself out of bed or hit my mother with force during his sleep for about 10 years before he received his diagnosis of Lewy Body.   She would retreat to another room as an act of self-preservation on those nights where he was active, and complain to me that he was 'at it again.'  Never once did either of them mention it to the doctor, and I didn't know there was a connection with brain disease until much later, when other symptoms had started to appear. 

Now, the question of why this occurs in this at-risk population is a hot topic for research.  One has to wonder whether the sleep disorder is cause or effect of the final disease.   A quick review of the literature finds the jury out on the actual mechanism of the disorder but in the meantime, any regular violent night time behavior, particularly where the sleeper is unaware of the problem, warrants a check up at the very least.

Reference: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Scientists measure dream content for the first time: Dreams activate the brain in a similar way to real actions." ScienceDaily, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.
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