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Night fright: Woman battles dream disorder


Pat Becker

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Updated: January 19, 2013 6:03AM

When Pat Becker noticed a man crouching in the corner while she was in a public restroom, she felt threatened and angry. So she started growling at the man.

Then she got ready to jump on him.

Only it was just a dream.

In real life, she was startled to realize she had jumped out of her bed and struck a table nearby ­— knocking out one of her teeth, smashing two others in her mouth, cutting her upper lip and bruising her ribs, chin and knee.

Becker, 62, of Champaign, has what’s known as REM sleep behavior disorder, a condition that causes a person to unconsciously act out their dreams while still asleep.

The disorder happens because of a dysfunction in a part of the brain that’s supposed to suppress muscle activity while people are in REM sleep, when dreams occur.

Becker’s not sure how long she’s had the disorder, because she and her husband, Rich, had been sleeping in separate rooms for around eight years. But that was the first time she became aware of it.

“It’s a little scary that it’s not curable and that the mind can decide that you are no longer going to have this body that’s totally restful during the REM sleep,” Becker said.

After getting extensive dental surgery to fix the damage from the July 2010 incident, Becker joined a sleep study in Champaign to better understand what was happening while she slept.

“During the sleep study, they told me I ‘performed’ because I had another dream which caused me to yell out loud and I kicked the electrodes off my legs — I was probably running or something in my dream,” she said.

The pulmonary physician who had witnessed Becker’s incident referred her to a neurologist specialist, who in turn referred Becker to a doctor in Chicago that had more experience with RBD.

That doctor ­— Aleksandar Videnovic, a neurologist, movement disorders and sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital ­— enlisted Becker to help her try to solve one of the big mysteries about RBD.

“People with RBD develop Parkinson’s at a higher rate than the general public, but it’s unclear why,” Videnovic said.

Studies vary on how many RBD patients go on to develop Parkinson’s disease or another neurodegenerative disorder, but it can range from 25 to 45 percent of patients. The thought is that RBD is an early manifestation of other conditions, Videnovic said. But Dr. John H. Jacobsen, a neurologist with the University of Chicago Medicine, emphasized that not everyone who has the disorder is bound to get Parkinson’s.

Videnovic said Northwestern is working on a study that looks at people who have RBD to see how many people go on to develop Parkinson’s and what appears to lead those patients to developing it, as part of a new arm of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The study is looking for 10 to 20 people with RBD. To participate, call (312) 503-0755.

Becker shows no sign of having Parkinson’s. But she was eager to take part in a research study to examine links between RBD and Parkinson’s disease, because she’s concerned about eventually developing it, Becker said.

An estimated 1 in 200 Americans suffer from RBD, which predominantly affects males in their 40s or 50s.

There’s no cure for RBD and because the disorder is relatively rare and other disorders can mimic it, it often takes a while to get the correct diagnosis.

But the good news is that the disorder is easily treated, according to Loyola University Medical Center sleep specialist Dr. Nabeela Nasir, who also specializes in RBD.

Most patients can successfully relieve their symptoms from clonazepam, a medication commonly used to treat panic attacks and seizure disorders. The drug, which is what Becker now takes, helps patients sleep more soundly and have fewer episodes. Increased amounts of melatonic, a hormone found naturally in the body, can also help.

Since she started taking the medication, Becker said she has hit or kicked her husband occasionally while sleeping, now that they again share a bed. But otherwise, she said, “I think it’s under control now.”

And for her, that gives her more peace of mind when she sleeps.

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