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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 3, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 10
REM Study Shows Brain Functions the Same Way Awake or Asleep

By Eric Vohr
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Johns Hopkins researchers have found strong evidence supporting the view that the sleeping mind functions the same as the waking mind, a discovery that could significantly alter basic understanding of the normal and abnormal brain.

The evidence comes from a study, appearing online in October in the journal Human Brain Mapping, of 11 healthy male and female participants whose rapid eye movements in "dream" sleep were timed using a video camera. The REM tracking was accompanied by special MRI images designed to visualize brain activity. Results revealed activity in areas of the brain that control sight, hearing, smell, touch, balance and body movements.

"This is the first time we have been able to detect brain activity associated with REM in areas that control senses other than sight," said lead researcher Charles Hong, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Medicine. "After comparing our data to other studies on awake people, we learned that our findings lend great support to the view that the waking brain functions in a similar way."

Hong said this method might allow simultaneous examination of major brain systems that are activated when REM occur and are reported to be abnormal in some psychiatric diseases.

In addition, Hong said, the researchers' method may be useful in people with Alzheimer's disease or schizophrenia, and even in infants. In awake studies, subjects must follow instructions and perform tasks to stimulate brain activity, tasks that these groups might have difficulty completing.

The method also may be useful in people with movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

"Head movements can create false data in MRI studies," Hong said, "while conveniently, REM sleep greatly reduces muscle tone, thus head movements."

Finally, Hong said that obtaining reliable results from awake participants would require studying multiple subjects.

"In contrast, only six minutes of MRI data from a single participant in our REM study produced robust results," Hong said.

He added that the ability to draw results from a single person permits researchers to compare results with other data that are specific to an individual.

"We can also analyze changes over time within a single person with a psychiatric disease. Our method may make a powerful tool to study the development of the brain starting from birth," he said.

Other researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine involved in the study are James C. Harris, Godfrey D. Pearlson, Jin-Suh Kim and Vince D. Calhoun, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Xavier Golay, Joseph S. Gillen, Peter C.M. van Zijl and James J. Pekar, of the Department of Radiology and also the F.M. Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging, Kennedy Krieger Institute; Daniel J. Simmonds, of the Department of Developmental Cognitive Neurology; and David S. Zee, of the Department of Neurology. James H. Fallon of the University of California, Irvine also contributed to this study.


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