Sleep and Its Secrets: The River of Crystal Light

By Michael S.; Aronoff | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Ondine's Curse—and Other
Sleeping Sicknesses

The water nymph, Ondine, even though an immortal, was smitten by an ordinary bloke, a knight, and married him. He, however, did not remain faithful to her. The enraged nymph took her revenge ... by cursing him with death if he were ever to sleep.

The "central hypoventilation syndrome," or "Ondine's curse," was first recognized in the mid 1950's. It is a disorder which does not exist during waking hours, while conscious control over breathing patterns holds sway. Instead, it appears that with sleep, or the loss of consciousness, the breathing that we all take for granted does not continue, presumably because of a faulty element in the automatic, nonconscious breathing control mechanisms that reside in the brainstem. Sufferers of "Ondine's curse" "forget" to breathe, so to speak, when they sleep. The neurological "automatic pilot," which is supposed to take over control of respiration during sleep, does not respond to the oxygen needs of the body. Normally, much of the brain can sleep while select centers of nervous activity, like night watchmen in a power generating plant watch, adjust and fine-tune activities according to the maintenance needs of the system. But in the individual with Ondine's curse, the night watchman sleeps too. Usually, the syndrome can be identified within a few hours of birth, when the affected child takes on a peculiar bluish tinge, known as cyanosis (a reflection of poor

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