Lashing Out When You Sleep Could Be a Sign of Brain Disease

What if dreams could actually give you important information about your future? There's a certain form of dreaming that could. A team of Canadian scientists have unveiled a surprising, yet momentous discovery that connects the dots between violent dreams — that is, dreams that make you physically lash out — and future brain disease.

The Peculiar Predictor

These physically violent dreams are associated with a rare condition called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD). As the study's principal investigator John Peever tells Live Science, RBD "is in fact the best-known predictor of the onset of Parkinson's disease." Science Alert elaborates that people with RBD will kick, punch, scream, or even fly "out of their bed in a violent rage." Basically, during your deep sleep cycle, your physical actions match your violent dreams.

RBD isn't just a predictor of Parkinson's disease — it's actually the biggest warning sign of neurodegenerative disorders in general, such as dementia. It can often tell you what's coming decades before an official diagnosis. Previous research supports the Canadian team's findings that patients who exhibit these violent, physical dreams have an 80-100 percent chance of developing brain disease in the future. As sleep expert Carlos Schenck, one of the first researchers to describe RBD, told WIRED in 2014, "it's not a matter of if, but when."

Dark Neurons

In their May 2017 study, Peever and his colleagues were able to isolate the specific group of brain cells responsible for maintaining REM sleep — first in mice, then in humans with RBD. When studying the humans, he found that these cells were damaged. Obviously, this was an important finding. For whatever reason, neurodegenerative disease appears to affect REM cells first. From there, Peever explains to Live Science that these cells trigger the spread of the disease into other areas of the brain, leading to other brain disorders like Parkinson's.

That may sound depressing, but there's an upside. Neurodegenerative disease has been frustratingly tricky to treat, often because we have so little knowledge of why and how it takes hold. Peever hopes this discovery will lead to a way to protect brain cells in at-risk patients, helping thousands of people live longer, healthier lives.

Crash Course: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Written by Ashley Hamer June 29, 2017

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