Night terrors and night terrorists

Photo by Flickr user Jon Haynes Photography. Click for sourceEarlier this year we covered a study on REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) where normal sleep paralysis breaks down and sleepers act out their dreams. The Journal of Forensic Science has just published a study on the dark side of the disorder, where affected sleepers experience nightmares and can unknowingly damage themselves or their partners in fits of dream world violence.

The researchers examined all the published cases on violence in REM sleep behaviour disorder with potential for a lethal outcome and found they fall into three groups: choking or headlock attacks, throwing someone or throwing yourself through a window, and diving from the bed.

Some of the descriptions are pretty intense:

A 63-year-old man with RBD and delayed-onset Shy-Drager Syndrome reported “a progressive 10-year history of abnormal behavior during sleep. He would at various times choke, kick, punch, and spit on his wife while he was asleep. In addition, complex behaviors such as getting out of bed and running into walls while asleep were reported by family members. This behavior occurred while the patient was dreaming, usually of being attacked.

A 67-year-old man had a 3-year history of progressive stiffness and slowing of his left side. Five years before the onset of these symptoms, he began having vivid dreams together with violent movements during sleep. Once he dreamed of being trapped in a house on fire, and he almost jumped out of the window, if not for his wife awakening and restraining him.

A 25-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis “presented with a 6-month history of sudden awakenings from fearful, often vivid‚Ķdreams and with terrified screams or violent behavior such as kicking, running to the door or to the window, crying and falling out of bed. If awakened, she always recalled a fighting dream. Once she repetitively banged her head against the floor, inducing a large facial hematoma. On that occasion, she was dreaming that a man was knocking her against the wall.

The idea that someone could be violent during sleep without any awareness was initially treated with suspicion but it has since been confirmed in sleep labs where patient are video-taped and wired up to an EEG to confirm they are in REM sleep.

There have now been numerous legal cases where ‘sleepwalking violence’ has been used as a defence for murders or attempted murders, and at least one case where it led to a successful acquittal.

Link to summary of RBD lethal violence study.

1 thought on “Night terrors and night terrorists”

  1. I have to share a story here. When I was 12 years old and slept on the top bunk I had a dream that our house now contained another room in the attic, which i then entered via my bedroom ceiling, finding a woodworking shop, of all things. In the morning as I was eating my cereal and my mother looked into my bedroom and asked why our light fixture was dangling by only one wire and frayed loose wires, electrical tape and fiberglass insulation were hanging out of the hole the fixture had occupied in our ceiling. Her pointing this out to me immediately recalled memory of my dream, but no recollection of me standing up on my bed to reach the fixture and disconnect all the wiring I could by hand. Not the most far out dream I’ve had but the only one that led to any action.

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