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Do you know someone who suffers from RBD? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Do you know someone who suffers from RBD? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

New research indicates that REM Behavior Disorder, one of the parasomnia sleep disorders, may be a precursor or predictive of future diagnosis with degenerative brain disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. 

REM Behavior Disorder (RBD) causes the body’s muscle atonia during sleep to malfunction.  This means that rather than tossing and turning, people with RBD perform the actions occurring in their dreams even though they are asleep.  RBD is in the same family of sleep disorders as sleep walking, sleep talking, and sleep eating, all of which involve exhibiting in abnormal behaviors during sleep.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 0.5% of the population has RBD.  It is much more common in males than it is in females and generally starts affecting people around age 50.

While it can be very dangerous for the person with the disorder and anyone who sleeps in their bed, RBD may also be a precursor to some of the most common degenerative brain disorders.  A study recently published in Trends in Neurosciences suggests that RBD and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may be related.  The team conducting the study found that 80-90% of those who develop RBD will go on to develop a degenerative brain disorder in the future.

The initial hypothesis centers on the idea that RBD results from degeneration of the circuits in the brain that control REM sleep.  This is the same degeneration seen in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative disorders.  The high percentage of people with RBD who end up with another degenerative brain disorder suggests that RBD may be an early symptom of the overall disorder.

Most importantly, this research shows that RBD may be one of the best methods available for predicting future onset of degenerative brain disease.  This could open the door to new ways of treating these devastating conditions that intervene early enough to prevent some of the most devastating effects or that even change the course of the disease.

The primary symptom of RBD is physically acting out your dreams.  If you have the condition, you may hear about your abnormal behavior because you were kicking or hitting your bed partner, screaming, or jumping out of bed.  You might also wake-up to find bruises and other injuries that were not there the night before. While this can be confused with sleep walking, the two conditions are not the same.  The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that sleepwalkers can be difficult to wake up and will be confused and unaware of what is happening when they do.  People with RBD will wake up immediately and have an awareness of what was happening when they woke.

While more research will need to be done, these findings have expanded our understanding of the possible link between these two conditions creating the possibility for powerful treatment and prevention opportunities in the future.