What are your dreams trying to tell you? Research suggests they could be warning you about disease risk factors.

According to Dr. John Peever, a neuroscience researcher at University of Toronto, your dreams could actually be warning you about potential neurological disease. This researcher has identified the specific parts of the brain associated with dreaming, and has found some surprising connections between them and neurological disease. Peever presented his findings on Monday at the 2017 Canadian Neuroscience Meeting, the annual meeting of the Association Canadienne des Neurosciences.

While a huge body of folk wisdom abounds about dreams — including predicting the future or unlocking subconscious desires — they still represent a somewhat fuzzy area for scientists. And while we’re concerned with the science of dreaming, it’s no secret that the subject comes with a certain mystique. Some humans have solved complex scientific problems in their dreams, while others seek to control their dreams. In recent years, though, neuroscience has given us a greater understanding of the dreaming brain, including some exciting insights into what areas of the brain are associated with particular subject matter in your dreams.

In seeking to answer some basic questions about how we dream, Peever identified neurons called REM-active neurons. Scientists have known for decades that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage of sleep during which we dream, is associated with the brainstem. But now that Peever has indicated the role of these REM-active neurons in dreaming, scientists can study the role these particular neurons play in neurological function. They’ve found that controlling these cells essentially lets them control dreaming.

“When we switch on these cells, it causes a rapid transition into REM sleep,” says Peever in a statement. And since scientists have identified a function of these cells, they can examine the health of people who display dysfunction in these cells. The results reveal startling implications for people who suffer from abnormal dreaming cycles such as REM sleep behavior disorder.

“We observed that more than 80 percent of people who suffer from REM sleep disorder eventually develop synucleinopathies, such as Parkinson’s Disease, and Lewy bodies dementia,” says Peever in a statement. “Our research suggests sleep disorders may be an early warning sign for diseases that may appear some fifteen years later in life.”

While this is just an early stage of this type of research, Peever is optimistic that, as scientists better understand how dreaming disorders are associated with later disease development, they may be able to develop strategies to help protect against developing these diseases.

Abstract: REM sleep is characterized by cortical activation, muscle paralysis and vivid dreaming, but the neural circuits that generate REM sleep remain poorly understood. Understanding the brain mechanisms that control REM sleep requires the identification of key neurons in the control circuits and mapping of their synaptic connections. Recent technical advances (optogenetics) are facilitating the identification and dissection of the circuit control of REM sleep. This talk will highlight recent advances in the interrogation of the brainstem circuits that generate REM sleep and how breakdown in these circuits underlies common neurological disorders such as narcolepsy and REM sleep behavior disorder.

Photos via Flickr / jsmjr