Weird dreams are enough to keep you awake at night. But, where do dreams come from? Researchers now say they know – a specific group of cells in the brain stem responsible for controlling dreaming sleep, also called Rapid Eye Movement sleep, a new study says.
The study also showed damage to those cells could lead to a sleeping disorder called REM Behaviour Disorder which makes a person act out violent dreams, reports Live Science.
The findings have far broader implications than pinpointing the neurological source of dreams, though, said the study’s principal investigator, John Peever, a professor of cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto. Because previous studies have shown 80 per cent of people with RBD develop incurable brain diseases, the new research could give drug companies a specific group of cells to target for therapies that slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.
“For some reason, the cells in the REM sleep area are the first to be sickened, and then the neurodegenerative disease spreads up into the brain and affects the other areas that cause disorders like Parkinson’s disease,” Peever told Live Science.
During a healthy night’s sleep, a person cycles through light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep several times. During REM sleep, the neurons in the brain stem send signals to the brain’s cerebral cortex – perhaps drawing the details for the dream from the parts of the brain responsible for learning, thinking and moving – as well as to the body’s spinal cord, to prevent muscles from moving, Peever said.
During healthy REM sleep, most people do not move around much, although some do twitch or talk. And although some people are known to walk in their sleep, sleepwalking is not a part of REM sleep, but a part of the deep-sleep cycle, when dreaming doesn’t occur.
In contrast, people who have RBD frequently have violent dreams and act them out during their REM sleep, injuring themselves and anyone who might be sleeping next them.
The disorder was first described by Dr Mark Mahowald and Dr Carlos Schenck, of the University of Minnesota. In their book, “In Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine,” published in 1985, the two doctors presented case histories of people with the disorder, including a 77-year-old minister, who behaved violently in his sleep, sometimes injuring his wife; a 60-year-old surgeon, who reported the feeling of being attacked, and who would jump out of bed during nightmares; and a 57-year old retired school principal, who mistakenly punched and kicked his wife while having nightmares.
The long-term strategy of this research is to develop a drug therapy that could treat patients who have been diagnosed with RBD. Such a therapy would likely not cure the patient of RBD, since the brain cells that cause that disorder would have already been damaged, but it could prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the brain, Peever said.
“You may have RBD, which is still unfortunate, but you won’t develop one of those other brain disorders, which are far more disabling,” he said.