The woman who lost her capacity to dream

Four days after suffering a brain-damaging stroke, a 73-year-old woman told her physicians of a startling development. In addition to experiencing mild vision problems sparked by the stroke, she had stopped dreaming.

This woman offered researchers their first opportunity to explore the biology of Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome, a rare, injury-caused condition marked by those symptoms and first described in 1883.

Before her stroke and for 3 days after it, the woman had regularly had vivid dreams, say Matthias Bischof and Claudio L. Bassetti, both neurologists at University Hospital of Bern in Switzerland. For the next 6 weeks, Bischof and Bassetti measured the woman’s brain waves as she slept. She displayed normal sleep stages, including rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, which may not be as crucial to dreaming as scientists once thought (SN: 8/11/01, p. 90: Brains in Dreamland). The researchers note in an upcoming Annals of Neurology that she reported no dreams, even when awakened during REM sleep, a reliable procedure for dream recall. Brain scans highlighted damage to a small area located deep within and toward the back of the woman’s brain.

Good scores on attention and memory tests indicated that the woman didn’t simply forget dreams upon awakening. When contacted 1 year after the stroke, she cited occasional, lackluster dreams—no more than one per week.

Thanks to this rare look at a Charcot-Wilbrand patient, the brain region identified deserves scrutiny as a potentially critical neural component of dreaming, the scientists say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.