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REM Behavior Disorder

REM behavior disorder occurs when a person acts out a dream physically while still asleep with the eyes closed. Dr. Carlos Schenck of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center in Minneapolis studied many people with this disorder. Most of them were males, middle-aged or older.

What is REM behavior disorder?

Schenck's first patient was Donald Dorff, a retired grocer from Minneapolis who gashed his forehead on a bedroom dresser while "dreaming that he was a football star in pads and a uniform, charging an opponent." After investigating this and many similar cases, Schenck found that 85 percent of people with REM sleep disorder had injured themselves. Some jumped out of windows while dreaming that their houses were on fire or that someone was trying to kill them. Others fell off ladders that they climbed in their sleep, or waded into lakes, or drove cars at high speed, or simply fell while roaming around darkened houses. Over half had at some point injured their bed partners, sometimes seriously (Blakeslee, 1988).

What is Schenck's explanation of "violent sleep behavior" ?

Schenck found that most violent sleepers benefited from small doses of anti-convulsant medications. He blames sleep violence on "dysfunctions in areas of the brain responsible for inhibiting motion during sleep."

Since examining Mr. Dorff, Dr. Schenck has studied 50 other violent sleepers suffering from what has become known as REM behavior disorder. The normal paralysis of REM sleep is somehow lost and the person literally jumps out of bed and enacts the dream going on in his head.

Unlike sleepwalkers, who are semi-conscious and seem to have an external goal like opening a door or going to the refrigerator, Dr. Schenck said, these people are driven by internal, unconscious actions taking place in their dreams. (p.21).

How does Schenck's research lend credibility to one of Jouvet's speculations?

Schenck's description is strongly reminiscent of Jouvet's cats. As you may recall, when Jouvet removed an area near the locus coeruleus, the cat would sleep until its first REM period, then it would jump up, with eyes still closed, and run around the cage making attack motions. Jouvet speculated that the cats were acting out their dreams, but one cannot ask a cat about its dreams.

Schenck's findings make Jouvet's speculation about dreaming cats easier to defend. Humans with REM behavior disorder report that, indeed, they are acting out dreams. This sets REM behavior disorder apart from sleepwalking which, as we saw earlier, is typically not accompanied by a dream corresponding to the activity of the sleepwalk. So maybe Jouvet really did give us a window into the REM dreams of cats. Not surprisingly, cats apparently dream about hunting.

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