What Happens When a Dreaming Brain Takes Over a Sleeping Body

Shelby Harris explains what can go wrong when the safety mechanism that shuts down your body during dreaming fails.


When you’re dreaming in REM sleep, your body is supposed to be switched off as your brain invents a nighttime narrative which may or may not make much sense — it’s a good thing it’s all in your mind and you’re not acting it out. You can’t fly, for example, and you’re not falling to your doom. This safety mechanism is called muscle, or REM, atonia.

A couple of things can go wrong with REM atonia, though. First, if you wake in the middle of REM, you may find yourself apparently paralyzed, an obviously terrifying experience. You’re not actually paralyzed, of course, because after a few moments of patience, REM atonia passes and your movement control returns.

Worse, though, is what can happen when REM atonia fails to kick in, as Shelby Harris explains. Harris is Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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