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Unraveling the Mysteries of Sleepwalking

The image of sleepwalking has often been somewhat comedic. Whether your familiarity with the issue comes from childhood episodes and tales that your parents told of you walking into the room muttering nonsense and clutching a pillow, or from nonsensical cartoon scenes in which sleepwalkers make their way through a scene with their arms outstretched, helping themselves to food in the refrigerator and getting into all sorts of hijinks, the truth is that there is a lot more to it, and for those who suffer from the sleeping disorder there is nothing to laugh about.

Now a recent study conducted by the Universite de Montreal has provided evidence that those who have a proclivity towards sleepwalking are far more likely to experience the disorder when they are recovering from periods of disturbed sleep than when they well rested. The study was published in the journal The Annals of Neurology, and should be of significant help to those treating the roughly 4 percent of the population that are affected by this disorder. 

Sleepwalking does more than disrupt sleep and provide amusing anecdotes for those who observe it. People who suffer from the disorder have been known to act in ways that are uncharacteristically aggressive and injurious; they also put themselves at risk of bodily injury. Though it has been previously theorized that sleepwalking was linked to sleep deprivation, but this is the first study that provided definitive proof.

The research sent those who were suspected of suffering from sleepwalking to a sleep clinic, where they were asked to sleep through the night. The following day the participants were permitted to pursue their normal activities, but were asked to return to the lab where they were kept awake throughout the night. After they were awake for 25 hours they were permitted recovery sleep, and it was then that they were shown to be most likely to experience sleepwalking episodes or behavioral movements that are symptomatic of the disorder. The incidence of sleepwalking was 90 percent higher during the periods of recovery sleep than during normal sleep, and on a scale of complexity of movement, the more sleep deprived the patients were, the more likely the chance that their episodes would merit a high score.

Though our understanding of sleepwalking is still meager, it is generally believed that the episodes occur when sufferers are in the deepest phases of sleep; this study showed that when patients were sleep deprived, they had tremendous difficulty moving out of deep sleep cycles and into the next natural stage of sleep. This is very meaningful, as deep sleep is extremely important to our ability to learn, think and remember.

Sleep experts believe that sleepwalking is on the rise as a result of the national epidemic of sleep deprivation.

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