A parasomnia is one of a group of sleep disorders in which unwanted, disruptive motor activity and/or experiences during sleep play a role. Parasomnias can occur in either REM or NREM phases of sleep. Sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome, and night terrors are all examples of parasomnias (Mahowald & Schenck, 2000).
In sleepwalking, or somnambulism, the sleeper engages in relatively complex behaviors ranging from wandering about to driving an automobile. During periods of sleepwalking, sleepers often have their eyes open, but they are not responsive to attempts to communicate with them. Sleepwalking most often occurs during slow-wave sleep, but it can occur at any time during a sleep period in some affected individuals (Mahowald & Schenck, 2000).
Historically, somnambulism has been treated with a variety of pharmacotherapies ranging from benzodiazepines to antidepressants. However, the success rate of such treatments is questionable. Guilleminault et al. (2005) found that sleepwalking was not alleviated with the use of benzodiazepines. However, all of their somnambulistic patients who also suffered from sleep-related breathing problems showed a marked decrease in sleepwalking when their breathing problems were effectively treated.
A Sleepwalking Defense?
On January 16, 1997, Scott Falater sat down to dinner with his wife and children and told them about difficulties he was experiencing on a project at work. After dinner, he prepared some materials to use in leading a church youth group the following morning, and then he attempted repair the family’s swimming pool pump before retiring to bed. The following morning, he awoke to barking dogs and unfamiliar voices from downstairs. As he went to investigate what was going on, he was met by a group of police officers who arrested him for the murder of his wife (Cartwright, 2004; CNN, 1999).
Yarmila Falater’s body was found in the family’s pool with 44 stab wounds. A neighbor called the police after witnessing Falater standing over his wife’s body before dragging her into the pool. Upon a search of the premises, police found blood-stained clothes and a bloody knife in the trunk of Falater’s car, and he had blood stains on his neck.
Remarkably, Falater insisted that he had no recollection of hurting his wife in any way. His children and his wife’s parents all agreed that Falater had an excellent relationship with his wife and they couldn’t think of a reason that would provide any sort of motive to murder her (Cartwright, 2004).
Scott Falater had a history of regular episodes of sleepwalking as a child, and he had even behaved violently toward his sister once when she tried to prevent him from leaving their home in his pajamas during a sleepwalking episode. He suffered from no apparent anatomical brain anomalies or psychological disorders. It appeared that Scott Falater had killed his wife in his sleep, or at least, that is the defense he used when he was tried for his wife’s murder (Cartwright, 2004; CNN, 1999). In Falater’s case, a jury found him guilty of first degree murder in June of 1999 (CNN, 1999); however, there are other murder cases where the sleepwalking defense has been used successfully. As scary as it sounds, many sleep researchers believe that homicidal sleepwalking is possible in individuals suffering from the types of sleep disorders described below (Broughton et al., 1994; Cartwright, 2004; Mahowald, Schenck, & Cramer Bornemann, 2005; Pressman, 2007).
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD)
REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) occurs when the muscle paralysis associated with the REM sleep phase does not occur. Individuals who suffer from RBD have high levels of physical activity during REM sleep, especially during disturbing dreams. These behaviors vary widely, but they can include kicking, punching, scratching, yelling, and behaving like an animal that has been frightened or attacked. People who suffer from this disorder can injure themselves or their sleeping partners when engaging in these behaviors. Furthermore, these types of behaviors ultimately disrupt sleep, although affected individuals have no memories that these behaviors have occurred (Arnulf, 2012).
This disorder is associated with a number of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. In fact, this relationship is so robust that some view the presence of RBD as a potential aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a number of neurodegenerative diseases (Ferini-Strambi, 2011). Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication with sedative properties, is most often used to treat RBD. It is administered alone or in conjunction with doses of melatonin (the hormone secreted by the pineal gland). As part of treatment, the sleeping environment is often modified to make it a safer place for those suffering from RBD (Zangini, Calandra-Buonaura, Grimaldi, & Cortelli, 2011).
A person with restless leg syndrome has uncomfortable sensations in the legs during periods of inactivity or when trying to fall asleep. This discomfort is relieved by deliberately moving the legs, which, not surprisingly, contributes to difficulty in falling or staying asleep. Restless leg syndrome is quite common and has been associated with a number of other medical diagnoses, such as chronic kidney disease and diabetes (Mahowald & Schenck, 2000). There are a variety of drugs that treat restless leg syndrome: benzodiazepines, opiates, and anticonvulsants (Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, n.d.).
Night terrors result in a sense of panic in the sufferer and are often accompanied by screams and attempts to escape from the immediate environment (Mahowald & Schenck, 2000). Although individuals suffering from night terrors appear to be awake, they generally have no memories of the events that occurred, and attempts to console them are ineffective. Typically, individuals suffering from night terrors will fall back asleep again within a short time. Night terrors apparently occur during the NREM phase of sleep (Provini, Tinuper, Bisulli, & Lagaresi, 2011)Generally, treatment for night terrors is unnecessary unless there is some underlying medical or psychological condition that is contributing to the night terrors (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).