A new piece of research has found a strange and surprising connection between dreaming and a whole bunch of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's disease and Lewy bodies dementia.
Speaking at the 2017 Canadian Neuroscience Meeting, Dr John Peever of the University of Toronto explained how his team discovered that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behavior disorders could be a strong indicator of neurological disease in later life.
Science has understood the brain stem has played a role in dreaming during REM sleep for over half a century. On top of dreaming, REM sleep is also characterized by muscle paralysis and, you guessed it, movement of the eyes.
This new research has looked at the specific neurons in the brain stem that are activated during REM sleep. These neurons are the cells responsible for dreams – if you can control these cells, you can control their dreaming patterns. As part of their research, they identified the cells and even discovered how to artificially activate them on brains of mice, causing them to have a “rapid transition into REM sleep.”
After successfully pinpointing these neurons, they then found that those who suffer from dysfunction with these cells and suffer from a REM sleep behavior disorder were particularly at risk of neurodegenerative in later life. People suffering from this sleep disorder do not experience paralysis during REM, making them appear to physically act out their dreams as they sleep.
“We observed that more than 80% of people who suffer from REM sleep disorder eventually develop synucleinopathies, such as Parkinson's Disease, and Lewy bodies dementia,” Dr Peever explained at the conference. “Our research suggests sleep disorders may be an early warning sign for diseases that may appear some fifteen years later in life."
Many neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are a result of the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons. The fact that neurodegeneration appears to be particularly associated with the dysfunction of neurons activated during REM sleep is an intriguing one. Even some of the basic mechanism of REM sleep and dreaming are still relatively unknown.
Bear in mind, it’s still early days for this idea. The scientists of the study believe it will be a fair few years until we're using their work to successfully predict neurodegenerative diseases. However, this link undoubtedly holds a lot of potential for future research and possible treatments of neurodegenerative diseases.
"Much like we see in people prone to cancer, diagnosing REM disorders may allow us to provide individuals with preventative actions to keep them healthy long before they develop these more serious neurological conditions."