Researchers at the University of Toulouse in France have completed work that shows how patients who have epilepsy can sometimes re-experience a dream while they are still awake. It's been an often described phenomena by patients and researchers alike that during a seizure, a patient will remember a previous dream from some part of their past. The team in France was able to record that happening and uncover some of the mechanism of how it happens in the brain.
In the United States, there are about 3 million people who suffer from epilepsy. It's a brain disorder that causes electrical misfiring in the brain, and those misfires can result in seizures. Over time the disease takes a toll, often resulting in memory loss. If seizures cannot be controlled by medication, some patients will have surgery, but that isn't always an option. Some success has been found with brain implants and deep brain stimulation, but those methods carry a great deal of risk. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States, and estimates show that about 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime.
While being in a new situation or environment and feeling as if you'd been there before is called déjà vu, re-experiencing a dream is referred to as "Deja reve" which means "already dreamed." While it was happening spontaneously for some patients during a seizure, to understand what was going on electrically, the researchers had to come up with a way to safely stimulate the brain and hopefully catch the experience. They used deep brain stimulation to the temporal lobe of the brain, which is where long-term memories and dreams are stored.
Jonathan Curot is a Ph.D. student studying neuroscience at Toulouse University Hospital and the lead author on the work. In an interview with Digital Trends, he explained "We have demonstrated [this effect] in six epileptic patients. We have trapped EEG signals during déjà-rêvé, and we were able to record patients during it and interview them just after these phenomena. We are [now] studying neuronal activity changes after electrical brain stimulations. We use new intracranial microelectrodes to explore the effect of electrical stimulation to better understand how they modulate neuronal activity."
Understanding how memories and dreams are stored in the brain and specifically how they can be recalled is a crucial part of finding better treatments for memory disorders like Alzheimer's disease or even mental illnesses. Deep brain stimulation is often a treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy, but now that it can also bring forth memories or dreams is a bonus that could lead to a better understanding of cognition and memory. With Alzheimer's and other dementia-related conditions on the rise, knowing exactly how the temporal lobe works are the best way to plan future research. Take a look at the video below for more information.