The discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and, in particular, REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) have brought elusive nightmarish experiences to scientific scrutiny. This article summarizes a century of sleep research to examine the maladies of dreaming, their pathophysiologic significance, and management.
Under healthy physiologic conditions, REM sleep is characterized by vivid mentation combined with skeletal muscle paralysis. The loss of REM sleep atonia in RBD results in vivid, potentially injurious dream enactment to patients and bed partners. RBD is common, affecting at least 1% of the population and is primarily caused by α-synuclein pathology of REM sleep–related brainstem neurons. The majority of patients with RBD ultimately develop a neurodegenerative syndrome such as Parkinson disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, or multiple system atrophy. Among patients with Parkinson disease, RBD predicts an aggressive disease course with rapid cognitive, motor, and autonomic decline. RBD is diagnosed by the presence of dream enactment episodes (either recorded or clinically recalled) and physiologic evidence of REM sleep without atonia demonstrated on polysomnography. Bedroom safety is of paramount importance in the management of RBD while pharmacokinetic options include melatonin or clonazepam.
The injurious dream enactment of RBD is common and treatable. It is a syndrome of α-synuclein pathology with most patients ultimately developing Parkinson disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, or a related disorder.