New research out of the University of Toronto by Dr. John Peever has attempted to answer one of the greatest questions posed by humanity: How do we dream? In this research, Dr. Peever found that dreams are created in a specific area of the brain. People who have difficulty dreaming may have early warning signs for debilitating brain diseases like Parkinson’s disease. These findings were presented and discussed at the annual conference of the CAN-ACN, or Canadian Association for Neuroscience-Association Canadienne des Neurosciences.
Research from the 1960’s shows us that the brainstem is known to be one of the primary regions involved in the act of dreaming, being one of the major controllers during REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep. Dr. Peever’s ground-breaking researcher has identified the responsible cells for activating dreams, and they are called REM-active neurons. More significantly, Dr. Peever and his team are able to control these cells, thereby having the potential to control one’s ability to dream. Dr. Peever notes turning these cells on results in a quick transition to rapid eye movement sleep.
Understanding this information, the researchers then looked at examining patients with dysfunctional dreaming and REM behavior disorders to determine if there is a link between these conditions and future development of brain disease. Interestingly, the scientists found that there was indeed a link to specific neurodegenerative brain diseases. Dr. Peever and his team reported that more than 80% of patients with a REM related sleep disorder end up developing synucleinopathies, like Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease. The findings indicate that sleep disorders could be an early warning sign for these conditions that may not even start to show up until 15 or more years later.
The goal of this research, as per Dr. Peever and his team, is that the findings will help develop a neuroprotective strategy against these debilitating brain disorders. These findings are similar to what doctors see in those who are prone to cancer. A REM disorder diagnosis will help physicians find adequate treatment and preventative actions that will keep these patients healthier for a longer period before developing a neurological condition. Naturally, Dr. Peever notes this goal will take many years to reach, but the hope is that it will one day help people live longer, healthier lives before needing medical attention.