While Asleep, Some People Act Out Their Dreams

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences December 05, 2012
When Patricia Becker noticed a man crouching in the corner while she was in a public restroom, she felt threatened and concerned. In an act of self-defense, she decided to jump on him. That’s when she woke up – alone in her bedroom, bloody and bruised. Becker suffers from REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), a condition that causes a person to unconsciously act out their dreams while still asleep. During her dream, she physically jumped out of bed and landed on a bedside table knocking out multiple teeth and sustaining numerous physical injuries. To help patients like Becker, Northwestern Medicine offers a specialized RBD clinic that integrates clinical care with research and education for medical professionals.

“RBD can be very dangerous to the people who have it, as well as those who share a bed with them,” said Aleksandar Videnovic, MD, a neurologist, movement disorders and sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “A person who has RBD will act out the scenes that they are experiencing in their dreams. Examples could include jumping out the window during a dream about a house fire or physically attacking the person sleeping next to them if they dream about a violent altercation.”

During REM sleep, which is one phase of sleep, a temporary paralysis occurs which keeps a person from getting out of bed while dreaming. For people with RBD, this bodily inhibition does not occur, allowing the person to make vocalizations and physically act out their dreams. The disorder is predominantly observed in males in their 40s or 50s, but can affect anyone. While it is thought to impact less than one percent of the population, experts believe the true incidence of RBD is higher.  

“RBD often goes undiagnosed because people don’t realize they have it and continue to live with it,” said Videnovic. “It’s not communicated well to physicians by patients and it is often caught by chance.”

To learn more about RBD and Northwestern Medicine's specialized clinic, read the full press release.

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