Sleepwalkers suffer from a well-known sleep disorder. A sleepwalker has an unconscious awakening that causes them to wander around. People who go to sleep can either walk around speechless or do more complex things, such as cooking or driving a car.
Going to sleep has two defining factors:
- Complex behavior.
- An altered state of consciousness.
During a sleepwalking episode, the sleepwalker exhibits unconscious behavior, is unable to respond to external stimuli, and has high autonomic activity (sweating, increased heart rate, etc.). If they wake up during an episode, they feel confused. On the other hand, they usually go back to bed and continue sleeping as if nothing happened.
The phases of sleep
To understand this disorder, you must first understand how sleep works. In terms of muscle tension, brain activity and the motor activity of the eyes, there are two types of sleep:
- NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep). NREM sleep is divided into N1 (when sleep starts), N2 (light sleep) and N3 (deep sleep).
- REM sleep (fast eye movement sleep).
Thus, while sleeping, you go from one phase to another, and all these phases are important for good rest.
Parasomnia of NREM sleep
Going to sleep occurs below N3. It is classified as an NREM sleep parasomnia along with nightmares and confused awakening. There is a theory that says these parasomnias are part of a single awakening disorder, but with multiple events.
Sleepwalking episodes occur after a large number of slow-wave sleep. Slow waves or delta represent a rhythmic, synchronized and slow activity in front of and centrally in the brain. They represent a high voltage phase and a wave of inactivity lasting milliseconds.
What happens in the brains of sleepwalkers?
Although widely known for its events and has been studied for over five decades, sleepwalking is still a mystery. No one knows what causes it. Nevertheless, there are several working hypotheses.
On the one hand, it has been theorized that it may be a slow-wave sleep disorder. A sleepwalker’s brain does not appear to have REM continuity, but rapid changes in its frequency and extent, unlike the brain of a non-sleepwalker.
When sleep occurs, there is more confusion awakening present during slow-wave sleep and more brain activity in the remaining stages.
On the other hand, others believe that sleepwalking is an awakening or a brain activation disorder. From this perspective, a sleepwalker is in a state between complete brain activation and an NREM sleep stage.
This means that they are neither fully awake nor asleep. This suggests the existence of little prefrontal activity when there should be the opposite. However, we still do not know why this activity is happening.
Conclusion on sleepwalkers
Sleep deprivation is related to several factors: lack of sleep or fragmentation, fever, drug use, stress and amazingly also pregnancy. As such , pathologies such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, cognitive disorders or migraines can also make you a sleepwalker.
The relationship between these symptomatologies has led physicians to believe that neurotransmitters may be related. Although there is no real treatment for sleep, benzodiazepines, antiepileptics, antidepressants, melatonin and stress medications are often prescribed to treat sleep.