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The first film presentation of REM sleep behavior disorder precedes its scientific debut by 35 years

Author(s): Janković Slavko M. | Sokić Dragoslav V. | Vojvodić Nikola M. | Ristić Aleksandar J.

Journal: Srpski Arhiv za Celokupno Lekarstvo
ISSN 0370-8179

Volume: 134;
Issue: 9-10;
Start page: 466;
Date: 2006;
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The perplexing and tantalizing disease of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is characterized by peculiar, potentially dangerous behavior during REM sleep. It was described both in animals and humans. RBD in mammals was first described by Jouvet and Delorme in 1965, based on an experimental model induced by lesion in pontine region of cats [1]. In 1972, Passouant et al. described sleep with eye movements and persistent tonic muscle activity induced by tricyclic antidepressant medication [2], and Tachibana et al., in 1975, the preservation of muscle tone during REM sleep in the acute psychosis induced by alcohol and meprobamate abuse [3]. However, the first formal description of RBD in humans as new parasomnia was made by Schenck et al in 1986 [4-7]. Subsequently, in 1990, the International Classification of Sleep Disorders definitely recognized RBD as new parasomnia [8]. To our knowledge, arts and literature do not mention RBD. Except for the quotation, made by Schenck et al [6] in 2002, of Don Quixote de la Mancha whose behavior in sleep strongly suggested that Miguel de Servantes actually described RBD, no other artistic work has portrayed this disorder. Only recently we become aware of the cinematic presentation of RBD which by decades precedes the first scientific description. The first presentation of RBD on film was made prior to the era of advanced electroencephalography and polysomnography, and even before the discovery of REM sleep by Aserinsky and Kleitman in 1953. [9]. The artistic and intuitive presentation of RBD was produced in Technicolor in a famous film "Cinderella" created by Walt Disney in 1950, some 35 years prior to its original publication in the journal "Sleep" [2]. Since there is an earlier version of the film initially produced in 1920, presumably containing this similar scene, we can only speculate that the first cinematic presentation of RBD might precede its scientific debut by 65 years. In a scene in a barn, clumsy and goofy dog Bruno is, as dogs usually do, lying on a mat deeply asleep and obviously dreaming of his enemy cat Lucifer. This is clearly implied by a preceding scene showing Lucifer being extremely frightened while observing the dreaming dog in action. The cat Lucifer is instantly aware that the dog is chasing him in a dream and is horrified (Pictures 1-3). In a film sequence lasting only 16 seconds, we see Cinderella being aware that Bruno is firmly asleep, apparently having a terrible dream. While lying on the ground with total absence of any muscle atonia, the dog Bruno chases the cat Lucifer in his dream. He is running and barking, and when in his dream he catches Lucifer, he tries to devour the cat. Cinderella tries to wake him up by calling his name twice, first gently and then more vigorously, as she becomes aware of the content of Lucifer’s dream and his intention. The dog is deeply asleep and does not awake in spite of being exposed to sunlight through the opening door of the barn, and called by name by Cinderella (Pictures 4-14). For such a behavior he is reprimanded by Cinderella who definitely recognized the content of his dream (Pictures 15-36). Immediately upon awakening, Bruno shows his good natured temper and amiable character (Pictures 37-40). The film shows that the producer (Walt Disney) and film directors (Wilfred Jackson, Clyde Geronimi and Hamilton Luske) were obviously aware that a dog might enact the content of a dream. It also implies that their observation from day-to-day (better to say night-to-night) life of the dream enactment is not a rare phenomenon, and that it deserves to be shown in the film. These authors were also aware that dogs having RBD were good-natured during wakefulness and that only in dreams they showed unrestrained aggression; while awake, dog Bruno was only an opponent or enemy to the cat Lucifer, but in dreams the animosity grew to aggression. Disney noticed this peculiar kind of sleep behavior and most probably was aware of its frequency and importance, and certainly not knowing it is a disease, he used it to color his cartoon character making it more likable to the observer. Since the film was nominated for Best Score, Best Song and Best Sound, it not only reflected the artistic and observational abilities of the producer, but also his sense of the importance of the phenomenon, awareness of its frequency and presence in animals. The onlooker is tempted to speculate that Disney, while obviously having been aware of such a behavior in animals, might also have knowledge of its presence in humans. Even more, since Disney’s films frequently present different sleep disturbances (e.g., obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in dwarfs, hypersomnolence in the dwarf Sleepy, or jactatio capitis nocturna in the dwarf Dopey in film "The Snow White"), it seems plausible that he first observed RBD in man, and then artistically transferred it to his cartoon animal characters. Since the whole incident took place during the day, we assume that Bruno, apart from suffering from RBD, had another sleep disorder causing daytime REM intrusions (possibly narcolepsy and probably not OSA, as is frequent in Disney’s films, since there is no excessive daytime sleepiness). The odd thing about RBD is that it may easily, as it probably did for centuries, go as peculiar behavior in sleep – rather than disease. While Lucifer was presented as sober and prudent cat, Bruno was clumsy and forgetful dog. We will refrain from speculating that dog’s clumsy nature could be the consequence of the CNS involvement by neuro-degenerative disease (i.e., synucleinopathy). Although we are aware that, in interpreting this episode we assumed to be at least as imaginative as the cartoon films of Walt Disney are, the fact remains that the artistic film presentation of RBD precedes its scientific description by at least 35 years.
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