Nightmares Could Be Turned Off After Scientists Discover the Genes that Control Deep Sleep

Nightmares could be ‘turned off’, new research suggests.

Scientists have discovered two genes that are responsible for nightmares and dreams, which both occur during deep sleep, also known as rapid eye movement (REM).

REM occurs in mammals, including humans, and was thought to play an important role in maintaining their wellbeing, as well as storing memories.

Yet when the researchers removed two genes that cause REM sleep in mice, they were surprised to discover the animals continued to live as normal, despite previous studies suggesting REM is crucial for survival.

By being able to remove the genes that code for dreams in mice, scientists could theoretically prevent people from having nightmares in the future.

Deep sleep may not be essential for survival  

The researchers, from The University of Tokyo, genetically modified mice so they no longer had genes that coded for the chemical messenger acetylcholine, which is released in high amounts when mammals are in REM sleep.

Removing these genes involved knocking out two genes known as Chrm 1 and 3, which are widely distributed across different regions of the brain.

Removing Chrm 1 caused the mice to have short, fragmented periods of REM sleep, while taking out Chrm 3 reduced their length of non-REM shut eye.

When both genes were removed, the mice had almost no REM sleep but still managed to survive.

This was surprising given previous research that suggests rats who do not get REM sleep die.

Based on their findings, published in the journal Cell Reports, the researchers believe REM sleep may not be essential for survival, at least in domesticated animals.

Alternatively, mice without Chrm 1 and 3 may have a reduced need for REM sleep, they added.

Do dreams help people cope? 

Scientists from Harvard University designed an experiment that determined the extent to which dreams are a precise replay of a person’s recent experiences.

For two weeks, 29 healthy young adults kept a detailed log of their daytime activities and emotional concerns. They also wrote down any dreams they recalled when they woke up.

External judges then compared the reports of the participants’ waking activities with their dreams.

Out of the 299 dream reports collected, a clear rerun of prior life events occurred in just 1-to-2 per cent of cases.

This suggests dreams are not about simply rewinding the video of the day’s recorded experience and reliving it at night.

Yet the researchers did find one strong daytime link with night-time dream reports: emotions.

Between 35 and 55 per cent of emotional themes and concerns that the participants were having when they were awake powerfully and clearly resurfaced in their dreams.

Dreaming may therefore take the painful sting out of difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes a person has experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when they wake the next morning.

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