One of the strangest and most interesting things about sleep is dreaming. Dreams are a very complex phenomenon, and while some may reflect what we are worrying or thinking about during the day, some are just plain weird. The most memorable and emotionally powerful dreams happen during the REM (rapid-eye movement) phase of sleep, which is the stage of sleep when our brains are most similar to a wakeful state.
Dreams can tell us a lot about ourselves — including, perhaps, whether we are likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system best known for the shaking or tremors that often accompanies it. It is an incurable, chronic disease and gradually affects the muscles and mental capacity, seriously afflicting the lives of the patient and his or her immediate relatives. In popular culture, Parkinson’s is well associated with Michael J. Fox, who suffers from the disease and is one of the most public and vocal figures promoting research and better treatments.
A study from Denmark’s Center for Healthy Aging and the Danish Center for Sleep Medicine, among other places, explains how dreams may hold the clue that people may be on track to develop Parkinson’s. Researchers found that one of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s may be a REM sleep disorder known as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD). There are a few things that happen with RBD:
- Usually when we sleep, the body shuts down our muscle movement during REM sleep so that we can’t act out our dreams
- In people with RBD, this shut-down doesn’t happen
- In this case, people have dreams that are very vivid and violent, compelling them to talk, punch, kick, scream, and even jump out of bed.
- Interestingly, RBD is usually seen in middle-aged to elderly people, and is more likely to happen in men than in women.
This highly active dreaming can appear up to eight years before the onset of other symptoms of Parkinson’s, so researchers are eager to see if they can use this to help patients before the disease becomes too severe. The next step is for scientists to see if RBD is always a sign of Parkinson’s or if active dreaming could be a benign trait.
In addition to being a possible early sign of Parkinson’s, RBD prevents people from getting restful sleep, mostly because they are so active during their dreams. Either way, it is important to keep studying this REM sleep disorder and other sleep disorders — the long-term dangers are too scary to ignore.