Living in a dream world: What genetics (and epigenetics?) can tell us about lucid dreams

Have you ever become aware that you’re in a dream state while you’re dreaming? If so, then chances are you’ve had a lucid dream. Much like Neo plugged into a simulated Matrix, you are cognizant of your altered reality and can even manipulate your dream environment. Lucid dreams can be quite pleasant for some people. For others, especially those with “Reward Deficiency Syndrome” (RDS) behaviors like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorder (SUD), the experience is nothing short of terrifying. So what type of relief is there for such individuals plagued by nightmarish lucid dreaming?

You take the blue pill…

Pharmaceutical treatment seems to be one viable course of action (for Neo, it was the red pill). Patients with RDS behaviors reported major improvements in their terrifying lucid nightmares after taking a dopamine agonist (a drug that mimics the action of dopamine), some with long-lasting effects [1]. Often dubbed the “happy hormone”, dopamine is popularly associated with feelings of well-being and pleasure. Studies have shown a link between RDS behaviors and hypodopaminergia, a condition characterized by low dopamine function, making these agonists a logical therapy to combat RDS-associated dopaminergic dysfunction.

Evidence suggests that genetic polymorphisms associated with hypodopaminergia confer susceptibility to RDS behaviors like PTSD and SUD [2]. A gene is said to be polymorphic if there’s more than one possible DNA sequence, or variant, for that gene. Although the majority of polymorphisms don’t disrupt normal

  • Blum, Kenneth et al. “Epigenetic Repair of Terrifying Lucid Dreams by Enhanced Brain Reward Functional Connectivity and Induction of Dopaminergic Homeostatic Signaling.” Current psychopharmacology volume 10 (2021): 10.2174/2211556010666210215153513. doi:10.2174/2211556010666210215153513
  • Daskalakis, Nikolaos P et al. “Recent Genetics and Epigenetics Approaches to PTSD.” Current psychiatry reports volume 20.5 30. 5 Apr 2018, doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0898-7
  • Comings, DE et al. “Dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene and susceptibility to posttraumatic stress disorder: a study and replication.” biological psychiatry volume 40.5 (1996): 368-72. doi:10.1016/0006-3223(95)00519-6
  • Neither, Natalie et al. “Child abuse, depression, and methylation in genes involved with stress, neural plasticity, and brain circuitry.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry volume 53.4 (2014): 417-24.e5. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.12.025
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