We’ve all had the experience of achieving our dreams, but it can be a harbinger of dreaded neurological conditions. Actor Alan Alda, best known for his role in the comedy TV series M*A*S*H*, thought he was being threatened as he slept and threw a sack of potatoes at the attacker . When he woke up he was in his bedroom and the sack of potatoes turned out to be a pillow he had thrown over his wife. A frightening experience like this could signal a brain-related disorder, like Parkinson’s disease, which Alda turned out to be.
According to Scientific American, dream fulfillment marks a disorder that occurs during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep phase. The disorder, called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), affects about 0.5 to 1.25 percent of the population. It’s more common in men and older people and can signal neurodegenerative disease, most commonly a condition in which the protein alpha-synuclein forms toxic clumps on the brain. This is called synucleinopathy.
RBD can also be triggered by certain medications, such as antidepressants, or caused by other underlying conditions, such as narcolepsy or a brainstem tumor. Sleepwalking and sleepwalking are not behaviors associated with RBD.
When RBD occurs in the absence of these alternative explanations, the risk of having future brain disease is high, says Scientific American. Some experts say that when dreams are acted out, there is an over 80% chance of developing a neurodegenerative disease, specifically Parkinson’s disease, which is characterized by a progressive loss of motor control. RBD can also be the first sign of other degenerative diseases, including dementia with Lewy bodies and multiple system atrophy.
But many clinicians are unaware of the connection between dreams and illness. Alda had to convince his neurologist to do a brain scan for Parkinson’s disease after reading the link in a 2015 news article. His scans confirmed his suspicions and the actor shared his experience with the public to alert others .
“I thought anyone with symptoms, even if it wasn’t one of the usual symptoms, could get a head start on the progressive nature of the disease,” he says. “The earlier you attack it, I think, the more likely you are to fend off the symptoms.”
Dr Daniela Berg, a neurologist at Christian-Albrechts-University in Germany, says the RBD is “one of the most powerful clinical prodromal markers we have” for predicting Parkinson’s disease. Scientists say knowing the RBD can help them trace the pathways that alpha-synuclein spreads through the body and brain. In some patients, there is evidence that the pathology begins in the gut and spreads through lower brain structures such as the brainstem to higher regions that govern movement and cognition. The most likely route is through the vagus nerve and at least one study has shown that cutting the vagus nerve, a treatment used for stomach ulcers, may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease later in life, according to Scientific American. .
Alda, 86, says he is “doing everything I can to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease”. He trains, plays chess with his wife and gorges on his favorite TV series, according to People. “I am more convinced than ever that life adapts, adjusts and revises itself,” he says.
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