'Inception' in Real Life? Researchers Rewrite Nightmares of PTSD Patients

The only clue she has found to her own condition has come reading about football players who experienced nightmares after head injuries.

That makes sense, according to Patrick McNamara, author of "Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions During Sleep."

Concussions, which can cause dysfunction of the brain's frontal lobe, can frequently cause sleep disorders. As Krakow's work suggests, the same can happen when the brain is deprived of oxygen in sleep apnea.

Nightmares are tied to over-activity in the amygdala, which is regulated by the front lobes in the brain.

"The amygdala is specialized to handled negative emotions -- fear and aggression, but mostly fear," said McNamara, who is director of evolutionary neurobehavior laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine.

The highest amygdala activation levels during the course of the day are during REM sleep.

"REM produces negative emotions and dreams defang that emotion," said McNamara. "Dreams get rid of the access emotion and when that breaks down, you get a nightmare."

With trauma victims, "that huge carriage of emotions has to go somewhere, and the REM system can only process so much of it at a time and it shuts down," he said. "All the amygdala is in hyperdrive. There is no regulatory system handling the process."

Nightmares can also be caused by genetic vulnerability, hormones, sex and sometimes antidepressants.

As for Gotcher, she is desperate for relief from the unending nightmares and night terrors.

"I have gotten to the point a couple of times when my lack of sleep made me feel psychotic, where I actually was concerned about my own mental fitness," she said.

For her, these new techniques sound intriguing.

At this point, she will try anything.

"I am determined to get better to live a well life," she said, "and that means having sleep."

Sidebar: How to Try it Out

Try Deirdre Barrett's "incubation" techniques for problem solving dreams from her book, "The Committee of Sleep:" Write down the problem as a brief phrase of sentence and place this by the bed.

Review the problem for a few minutes just before going to bed.

Once in bed, visualize the problem as concrete image if it lends itself to this.

Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you is drifting off to sleep.

Keep a pen and paper -- perhaps also a flashlight or pen with a lit tip -- on the night table.

Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible. Write it down.

If you want to be more elaborate, incubation can include:

At bedtime, visualize yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening and writing on the bedside note pad.

Arrange objects connected to the problem on the night-table or on the wall across from bed if they lend themselves to a poster.

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