Sleepytime Strollers Scientists Study Somnambulism

By Madeline Drexler Health and Fitness News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 16, 1994 | Go to article overview

Sleepytime Strollers Scientists Study Somnambulism


Madeline Drexler Health and Fitness News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


There was the bridegroom who crept out onto a four-inch windowsill, 14 stories above New York's Central Park.

And the woman who ate a cat-food sandwich.

And then there was the fellow who began tidying his bookshelves at 3:30 in the morning. When his wife approached, he assured her, "I'm all right. There's no problem" - though his expression was blank, his gaze frozen, his voice a strange whine.

Sleepwalkers don't remember their nocturnal ramblings, and that's often a good thing. Though their daytime activities may be reasonable, their nighttime repertoire can range from bizarre to perilous.

In most cases, sleepwalking behavior is benign, even charming. It can be as simple as taking a few steps toward the door or as methodical as lining up one's shoes in the middle of a room. Most somnambulists, as they are called, then return to bed, sleeping an innocent sleep until confronted with their handiwork in the morning.

But a small number get into such mischief - or danger - that their dazed peregrinations become full-fledged emergencies.

What causes sleepwalking? Specialists don't know. Most say the condition is rooted in biological, not psychiatric, illness.

"We were all taught that people who were sleepwalkers - particularly those who started in adulthood - had significant psychiatric diseases, especially personality disorders," says Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis. But most patients that he sees - even those with violent and self-injurious behavior - don't have psychological problems. Nor do their after-dark activities bear any relation to their daytime thoughts.

In some people, stress does set off the behavior; sleep deprivation and dozing in a new place are notorious triggers. But, as strong family histories attest, sleepwalkers share an organic vulnerability.

"There seems to be something about the deep-sleep-generating mechanisms that are disturbed in these people," says Dr. Neil Kavey, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

Trapped in a mixed state of sleep and wakefulness, somnambulists do think at some level: They can unlock doors, start car engines. But they don't appraise or remember their actions. …

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