Steven Bochte has punched his wife, given her a karate chop and put their Boston terrier in a headlock, all while asleep.
After years of transforming into a Hulk of sorts during slumber, Bochte was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder. While most people’s bodies remain still during REM sleep— REM stands for rapid eye movement — people with the disorder act out their dreams.
“I’m not a violent person. I’m not an angry person. I love my wife very much,” said Bochte, 32, of Madison, a computer programmer at the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. “To have my body hijacked and punching her is just horrifying.”
This week, a researcher put a net lined with more than 250 electrodes on Bochte’s head before he underwent a sleep evaluation. It was part of a UW-Madison study on five kinds of sleep disorders: REM behavior disorder, sleepwalking, sleep talking, night terrors and sexsomnia, when people engage in sex while asleep.
On Monday night, with the electrodes hooked up to recording machines and other sensors placed on Bochte’s chest and legs, he slept during the baseline portion of the study at Wisconsin Sleep, a joint venture between UW Health and UnityPoint Health-Meriter.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, he will participate in the second portion. He’ll be kept awake for up to 25 hours and then allowed to sleep while beeping sounds are played. Sleep deprivation and noise are thought to increase the odds he’ll act out a dream.
The goal is to find out what causes REM behavior disorder and the other disorders, or at least learn if particular parts of the brain act differently in people experiencing episodes.
“We want to know what’s going on in the brain,” said Amandine Valomon, a postdoctoral researcher working on the study. “We want to see if sleep and wake are happening together at the same time.”
The researchers are also interested in consciousness, Valomon said. They want to know if a zone in the back of the brain, which corresponds to a loss of consciousness during sleep, lights up differently in people who recall acting out during slumber compared to those who don’t remember.
REM sleep happens roughly every 19 minutes, and most people’s bodies are restrained, Valomon said.
In people with REM behavior disorder, “the inhibition is lost,” she said. “We don’t know which part of the brain is implicated, but there is suspicion that it’s the brain stem.”
Sleepwalking happens during deep-sleep phases of non-REM sleep, she said.
Rachael Wenger, a physician assistant from Madison, sleepwalks about once a month, typically when she hasn’t gotten enough sleep or is anxious about something, she said.
She participated in the study this summer. She didn’t sleepwalk while at the sleep clinic, even after staying awake for 25 hours before sleeping during the second visit. But she remembers trying to remove the electrodes from her head.
“At one point, I woke up because I was trying to rip the little helmet off,” said Wenger, 32.
Bochte, who believes he has talked and acted out during sleep for many years, became more aware of and worried about the condition after settling down with his wife, Desirae, six years ago.
Sometimes he’d hit her. Sometimes he’d act out scenes from movies they watched. Occasionally, he’d utter odd but sweet sentiments.
“You’re cute and magical,” he told her while fully asleep one night, she said.
“Do you have a license for all that concealed cute and carry?” he asked her another time.
Desirae Bochte said her husband is never violent while awake. “He has a very gentle demeanor,” she said.
After Steven Bochte was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder a few years ago, he started taking clonazepam, a tranquilizer. It has reduced his symptoms, especially limb twitching he experienced while drifting off to sleep, he and his wife said.
But the condition hasn’t fully gone away. “It comes out randomly, and I have no control over it,” he said.
Bochte’s two brothers also talk or act out during sleep. He hopes the UW-Madison research leads to better treatments someday.
“Hopefully somebody down the road won’t have to suffer through all this crazy stuff my subconscious does,” he said.