Cure for nightmares? Scientists say sound therapy could help reduce bad dreams

GENEVA, Switzerland — Nightmares may be preventable using sound therapy, according to new research. Scientists in Switzerland say these terrifying scenarios range from being chased, to meeting monsters and demons, to seeing something tragic happen to a loved one.

Poor sleep also has a connection to a host of serious illnesses, including dementia, heart disease, and cancer. In therapy, dreamers are coached to rehearse positive versions of their most frequent and scariest imaginary experiences.

They can become regular occurrences, visiting dreamers many times a week and affecting quality of life. Now, scientists have taken it a step further by also playing a sound linked to an uplifting daytime experience. They emitted this sound through a wireless headband while participants were asleep, reducing nightmare frequency.

“There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being,” says senior author Lampros Perogamvros, a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva, in a media release.

“Based on this observation, we had the idea that we could help people by manipulating emotions in their dreams. In this study, we show that we can reduce the number of emotionally very strong and very negative dreams in patients suffering from nightmares.”

Sound therapy improved dream quality for 3 months

Up to four percent of adults have chronic nightmares at any given moment, which can make them wake up and struggle to get back to sleep. Health professionals commonly prescribe “imagery rehearsal therapy,” which asks people suffering from nightmares to change the negative storyline toward a more positive ending.

They rehearse the rewritten outcome during the day. While effective, some patients are unresponsive. So, Dr. Perogamvros and colleagues recruited 36 patients and split them into two groups — half of whom also received the sound exposure.

They had to create an association between a positive version of their nightmare and a noise during an imagination exercise, which they practiced daily. The skullcap sent the tones during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage when nightmares mostly occur, for two weeks.

Patients fared better than participants who only received the imagery rehearsal therapy. All experienced a decrease in nightmares each week, but those receiving the sound therapy had fewer for at least three months. They also experienced more joy during their dreams, according to study authors.

“We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures, for example performing imagery rehearsal therapy every day and wearing the sleep headband during the night,” says Perogamvros.

“We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.”

The Swiss team says the results support that such combined therapies should be trialed on larger scales. This will determine the extent and generalizability of its efficiency.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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