He was the first person to be diagnosed with a new sleep disorder. It led to a scientific breakthrough

Donald Dorff could sleep hear the crowd roaring as he snatched the quarterback’s pitch from the air and sprinted toward the goal line.

“There was a 280-pound tackle waiting for me, so I decided to give him my shoulder,” the 67-year-old told National Geographic magazine in 1987.

“When I came to sleep, I was on the floor in my bedroom,” Dorff said. “I had smashed into the dresser and knocked everything off it and broke the mirror and just made one heck of a mess. It was 1:30 a.m.”

Five years earlier, Dorff had become the first patient diagnosed with an unusual disease called rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, or RBD.

There’s more. Dorff’s case also launched researchers on a journey that uncovered one of the earliest signs of two devastating diseases: Parkinson’s and a unique form of dementia called Lewy body.


Symptoms include screaming, kicking and throwing punches

The discovery of RBD was made in 1982 when Dorff, after years of experiencing “violent moving nightmares,” became a patient of psychiatrist and sleep specialist Dr. Carlos Schenck, then working at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis.

“During rapid eye movement or REM sleep, the brain basically paralyzes the body so that we cannot act out our dreams,” Schenck, now a professor and senior staff psychiatrist at the Hennepin County Medical Center at the University of Minnesota, told CNN recently.

“But Dorff was able to get up and hurt himself while dreaming, a very odd behavior. We were scratching our heads about it,” he said. “Then we put him in a sleep lab, and lo and behold, all his physical behaviors came out of REM sleep, which had never been reported before.”

More patients with the unusual disorder were identified, many exhibiting a disturbing set of violent symptoms, Schenck said.

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