Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) is a rare sleep disorder. It's genetic, and has been diagnosed in less than 40 families worldwide.
Perhaps the most famous case is that of the Chicago music teacher, Michael Corke, who featured in the BBC documentary The Man Who Never Slept.
FFI is a truly dark disease. It begins as a sudden and unexplained sleeplessness sometime during middle age. As this is after the childrearing years, most sufferers have already passed on the cursed gene to their children.
Total insomnia ensues. It's as if, one day, the brain forgets how to sleep, and remains in a permanent state of wakefulness until death brings mercy.
Fatal insomnia is a baffling condition because its symptoms resemble many common diseases like dementia, end-stage alcoholism and encephalitis.
The main symptom of FFI is the inability to sleep, and this causes high pulse and blood pressure, excessive sweating and a loss of coordination and motor skills.
The disease manifests itself in four deteriorating stages:
One of the most tragic aspects of FFI is that though the sufferer shows signs of dementia, they have a clear understanding of what is happening to them, while enduring the physical agony of total sleeplessness.
Little was known about this disease until the last decade, when scientists found it to be caused by a genetic mutation that brings about prion disease.
The term prion ("pree-on") was invented by Stanley Prusiner in the 1980s as the name for an infectious agent. Specifically, a prion is a mis-folded protein that permanently affects the structure of the brain.
Prions are responsible for the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) in humans. Prion disease also causes Kuru (the laughing disease found in cannibalistic tribes in New Guinea) and Alzheimer's Disease.
Indeed, recent studies have found a direct correlation between Alzheimer's, sleep loss, and the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain.
In FFI, prions eat away the thalamus region of the brain, responsible for regulating sleep and various sensory and motor systems, replacing it with amyloid plaques.
This increasingly prevents the sufferer from losing consciousness - although their EEG readings show signs associated with REM sleep during waking hours. They are so sleep deprived, they are dreaming while awake.
Because Fatal Familial Insomnia is genetic, there is a 50% chance of a parent passing it on to their offspring. A diagnostic test is now available, but there is no known cure for FFI. The only hope is that gene therapy will offer a solution to future generations.
The Family That Couldn't Sleep by D T Max details the history of Fatal Familial Insomnia and prion disease. It reads like a detective story with alarming twists and turns, including just how close the population of Britain came to suffering a major epidemic of CJD.
From Publisher's Weekly: "In 1765, Venetian doctors were stumped by the death of a man who had suffered from insomnia for more than a year and spent his final months paralyzed by exhaustion. Over the next two centuries, many of his descendants would develop similarly fatal symptoms, with a range of misdiagnoses, from encephalitis to alcohol withdrawal.
Finally, in the early 1990s, their disease was recognized as a rare genetic form of prion disease. The family reluctantly shared their history of Fatal Familial Insomnia with Max, who has written about science and literature for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. Max (inspired in part by his own neuromuscular disorder) has crafted a powerfully empathetic account of their efforts to make sense of their suffering and find a cure. But this is only half the story.
Looking at prion disease in general, Max doubles back to the English Mad Cow epidemic of the 1990s, retracing established backstories among New Guinea aboriginals and European sheep herds. There's enough fascinating material - in particular, a theory suggesting that early humans were nearly wiped out by a plague spread by cannibalism - to keep readers engaged, but they're likely to want still more about the genuinely captivating family drama."
Here's a good question. If a lucid dream is any dream in which you know you're dreaming, then why aren't we always lucid in dreams? Why doesn't it just become the default state of dreaming? Why do we accept our dreams of flying pigs and dinosaurs as an extension of waking life? What is the mechanism for defaulting to non-lucid dreams? Intriguingly, scientists have approached this question from three different angles./p>
What do blind people dream about? Can they "see" in their dreams? Take a look at scientific studies into the dreams of the blind, colorblind, and black-and-white dreamers. In 1999, dream researchers at the University of Hartford analyzed 372 dreams of 15 blind people. They found that both the congenitally blind and those who went blind before five years old did not have any visual dreams at all. That's because our dreams are made up of real world experiences and our innermost thoughts, anxieties and desires. So for someone who has never perceived images or light (or can't remember any) their dreams simply can't manifest visually.
Not long ago, scientists at Frankfurt University discovered how to produce lucid dreams with electronic stimulation. It was a world first. And - astonishingly - it worked in non-lucid dreamers 77% of the time. Now you can buy the same technology for yourself. The foc.us V2 - which delivers the proven optimum 40 Hz transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) - was originally developed to increase working memory in video gamers and improve sleep.
As technology continues to move us towards more immersive dreamlike experiences, one can only wonder what digital wonders lay just beyond the horizon of tomorrow. We may also question just how the future of virtual reality will impact the study and practice of lucid dreaming. Are we, perhaps, the last generation to whom lucid dreaming will maintain an appeal?
Jeremiah Morelli is a whimsical fantasy artist and visual storyteller. He places conceptual fairytale creatures in vivid dreamscapes to capture the imagination. He's also a school teacher, and amazingly finds the time and motivation to create this huge gallery of artwork. Such light and dark fairytale paintings make beautiful places to visit in your lucid dreams.
Experts agree that everyone is capable of having lucid dreams. Dreaming itself is a normal function of the mind. We all dream every night, even if we don't remember. And we all achieve conscious awareness while awake every single day. So what does it mean to combine these states? Why, the amazing ability to have conscious - or lucid - dreams. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why do I keep hearing from people who say they can't achieve their first lucid dream?