What you do while dreaming might be a sign of things to come. This isn’t non-scientific phooey, rather this is real science that can help doctors and patients address neurological issues. There’s been an increase in scientists looking at what people do while dreaming to see if they have Parkinson’s or other neurological difficulties, and by examining dream behaviour it might be possible to provide an earlier diagnosis.
In recent years awareness of RBD and an understanding of how it relates to synucleinopathies have grown. Studying this link is giving researchers ideas for early intervention. These advances contribute to a growing appreciation of the so-called prodromal phase of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders—when preliminary signs appear, but a definitive diagnosis has not yet been made. Among the early clues for Parkinson’s, “RBD is special,” says Daniela Berg, a neurologist at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. “It’s the strongest clinical prodromal marker we have.”
Does damage to the brain stem also affect the content of dreams and the actions of dreamers? Sleep researcher Isabelle Arnulf, a professor of neurology at Sorbonne University in Paris, developed a keen interest in the dream-time behaviors of her Parkinson’s patients after noticing an unusual pattern: although these people struggled with movement while awake, their spouses often reported that they had no trouble moving while asleep. One particularly memorable patient, according to Arnulf, had been dreaming of crocodiles in the sleep lab when he lifted a heavy bedside table above his head and loudly shouted, “Crocodile! Crocodile!” to an empty room. When awake, he struggled to lift objects and to speak.