Mental activity during episodes of sleepwalking, night terrors or confusional arousals: Differences between children and adults

Castelnovo, Anna; Loddo, Giuseppe; Provini, Federica; Miano, Silvia; Manconi, Mauro (2021). Mental activity during episodes of sleepwalking, night terrors or confusional arousals: Differences between children and adults. Nature and science of sleep, 13, pp. 829-840. Dove Medical Press 10.2147/NSS.S309868

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Objective/background: Night terrors, sleepwalking and confusional arousals are behavioral manifestations of incomplete awakenings from sleep. According to international diagnostic criteria, these behaviors occur in the absence of any mental experience, or in the presence of very limited cognition or dream imagery (eg, a single visual scene). The aim of this study was to systematically and retrospectively investigate the mental content associated with sleep terrors and/or sleepwalking in both children and adults.
Patients and methods: Forty-five consecutive patients referred for a diagnosis of disorders of arousal (DOA) of all subtypes (sleepwalking/sleep terrors/confusional arousals) (25 adults: 30 ± 6 y, 15 females; 20 children: 10 ± 3 y, 6 females) underwent a detailed semi-structured interview about the mental content associated with their nocturnal episodes. The interview was comprehensive of specific questions about their subjective recall rate, several content details (characters, emotions, actions and setting/context), and hallucinatory or dissociative experiences during clinical episodes. Patients' reports were classified for complexity (Orlinsky scale) and content (Hall and Van de Castle categories).
Results: More than two-third of the children (n = 14) could not recall any mental activity associated with their episodes, whereas more than two-third (n = 16) of the adults recalled at least one mental experience. Half of the adult patients (n = 8) estimated that a specific mental content was subjectively present around 50% or more of the times. Seven adults and one child described clear and vivid hallucinatory experiences of "dreamed" objects or characters projected onto their real home environment, in the absence of any reality testing. Five adults and two children described one or more dissociative experiences. The content of the collected reports was dominated by dynamic actions acted out from a self-perspective, often with apprehension and in response to misfortune and danger, in a home-setting environment.
Conclusion: These results suggest that current diagnostic criteria are tailored around the typical presentation of DOA in children, and do not always fit to adult patients with DOA. Furthermore, they support the concept that consciousness may reemerge in DOA patients during clinical episodes, in a peculiar dissociated, psychotic-like form.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


04 Faculty of Medicine > Department of Head Organs and Neurology (DKNS) > Clinic of Neurology
04 Faculty of Medicine > University Psychiatric Services > University Hospital of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

UniBE Contributor:

Manconi, Mauro


600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health




Dove Medical Press




Marlise Matti

Date Deposited:

21 Apr 2022 10:42

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:19

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

somnambulism, confusional arousal, parasomnia, dream, consciousness, mental content, amnesia




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