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Sleepwalking: Are Genetics To Blame?

By Edited Jun 4, 2016 0 0

Have you ever walked in your sleep? According to recent research [1], almost one-third of people in the United States alone may walk in their sleep. And, new research suggests the cause of sleepwalking for some people may be genetic.

The causes of sleepwalking have been discussed and studied for decades. Causes such as stress, being tired, severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among other things, have been linked to an increased chance of sleepwalking. But, the discovery that genetics may be a possible cause for sleepwalking is new and groundbreaking.

The research [2], conducted by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine, found that a defective gene might be the culprit that makes some, not all, people prone to sleepwalking.

Generations of Sleepwalkers

A sleepwalker

The researchers studied four generations of a family that has a history of sleepwalking and by taking DNA samples found a flaw in one section of the family’s chromosomes. The single defective chromosome was apparently enough to cause persistent sleepwalking across multiple members of the family and over several generations. The researchers found that someone with the defective gene has a 50 percent chance of passing it along to their children who will then be likely to suffer from the condition. By examining the defective area the researchers hope to be able to find ways of overcoming the defect and help at least some of the people worldwide who may have the same defect and who sleepwalk regularly. They suspect the condition could affect up to 10 percent of children and perhaps as many as one in 50 adults.

In most cases sleepwalking is something that people will outgrow. The researchers say that children will often have sleepwalking experiences. They are common and result in no serious long-term effects. However, there are cases of more serious sleepwalking episodes, some considered dangerous – even deadly.

Killer Sleepwalkers

One example of a “killer sleepwalker” occurred in the U.S. in 1846 and involved a man accused of killing a woman while sleepwalking. He was found not guilty [3]. More recently, in 2005 in Australia, another man who claimed he was sleepwalking was found not guilty of killing his father.

Despite years of research on the subject, the genetic link to some sleepwalkers presents some of the first new research on the subject. For years researchers have found that sleepwalking (also called somnambulism or nocturnal wandering) most often occurs not too long after someone has fallen asleep. It can take many forms, from just sitting up in bed all the way to getting dressed, leaving the residence and performing complex tasks. It can be hard to wake someone from sleepwalking and although it has long been thought that you shouldn’t try to wake a sleepwalker, current science suggests you should redirect the person and get him or her back to bed. Another myth is that a person can’t be injured while sleepwalking. They are just as likely to hurt themselves as non-sleepwalkers, sometime even more so because there is a greater likelihood they could trip or lose their balance. That’s why serious sleepwalkers may have to take added precautions such as moving objects, blocking off stairways, etc.

Typically the sleepwalker can’t remember that he or she has been sleepwalking.

Researchers [1] have been able to determine that about 29 percent of sleepwalkers say they had sleepwalked (either they did remember having done so or were later told that they had sleepwalked) at least once in their lives. About three percent said they did it between once a year and once a month, and one percent said they sleepwalked at least twice per month. They also found that people with sleep apnea or insomnia, heavy drinkers and people taking sleeping pills were more likely to walk in their sleep.


1. Prevalence and Comorbidity of Nocturnal Wandering in the U.S. Adult General Population. Neurology May 15, 2012 vol. 78 no. 20 1583-158

2. Novel Genetic Findings in an Extended Family Pedigree With Sleepwalking. Neurology January 4, 2011 vol. 76 no. 1 49-52

3. Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993;


Sleep: The Mysteries, the Problems, and the Solutions By Carlos H. Schenck,





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