Mysterious Real-Life Sleeping Epidemic Resembles “The Sandman” Scenario

The sleep disorder that begins with Dream‘s imprisonment in The Sandman was indeed a real epidemic in the early 1900s. The cause of the medical condition known as Encephalitis lethargica is still unknown.

The most famous case of Encephalitis lethargica was that of a young girl who suddenly became paralyzed from the waist down while returning home from a concert, falling asleep half an hour later. This patient, after sleeping for 12 days, never woke up again and passed away.

This condition did not remain an isolated medical curiosity but turned into an epidemic. It spread to nearly one million people in Europe and America, causing the death of the majority of those affected.

Patients were typically between the ages of 15 and 35. Afflicted individuals often felt constantly tired and had a persistent desire to sleep, although unlike in the series, they were not completely unable to wake up. They could open their eyes and perform some movements, but they never truly felt fully awake.

For instance, in the video below, you can see a sleep disorder patient who hears the command “touch your nose” and is able to follow it even while asleep. Patients felt that their minds remained alert even while asleep, and they could perceive what was happening around them. However, even if they managed to wake up, they couldn’t stay awake for long. When they tried to stand, they couldn’t maintain their balance and would collapse to the ground.

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Sleep disorder didn’t manifest the same symptoms in everyone. The psychiatrists and doctors of the time categorized patients into three groups.

The first group includes those who were in a constant state of sleep, similar to the individuals in the video above. The second group consists of those who couldn’t sleep at all. This group suffered from such severe insomnia that even when awake, they wandered around like spirits. Because they couldn’t fall asleep, their bodies became exhausted, their senses dulled, and their memories were impaired. The third group is the rarest: they remained motionless like statues. Most of them fell into a coma and couldn’t wake up for years. So, if we were to place the princess from the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale into one of these groups, it would be the third one.

How Did Sleep Disorder Begin? When and Where?

The first case of sleep disorder was a soldier returning from World War I in 1915. The symptoms were first reported by Constantin von Economo, a neurologist from Vienna, in 1917. At first, most of the patients were soldiers, so doctors initially suspected it might be a side effect of mustard gas. However, the disease also began to spread among civilians, eliminating the possibility of the mustard gas effect.

Between 1915 and 1940, nearly one million people in many countries in Europe and America contracted the sleep disorder. They couldn’t determine the cause of this epidemic then, and we still don’t know it today. It’s important to note that the Spanish flu pandemic was also happening during those years. As a result, many patients didn’t receive the necessary attention and care, and most died due to respiratory failure. Nevertheless, some patients continued to sleep for 30-40 years without experiencing respiratory problems.

It is estimated that 40% of the patients died in their sleep, 25% remained in a vegetative state, 26% woke up but did not fully recover from the symptoms, and only 14% managed to overcome the disease.

Approximately 10 years after the first case of sleep disorder was observed, the epidemic ended. Between 1940 and 2010, only 14 people worldwide exhibited symptoms that fit the description of this disease.

What Caused Sleep Disorder and How Did It Become an Epidemic?

We still don’t have answers to these questions today.

When the brains of deceased patients were examined, formal and color changes were observed. This indicates that the disease has neurological and physical causes or effects.

Researchers initially thought the cause could be toxic, bacterial, or genetic. However, as cases increased and experiments were conducted, all their theories were debunked one by one. No evidence was found to support the idea that the disease is genetic. The theory of a toxic effect localized to one region was invalidated because the disease spread to many countries. Additionally, experiments conducted on animals and humans to observe the transmission of the disease also failed. Therefore, the source and transmission of the disease have never been uncovered.

For instance, in 1919, girls and caregivers living in an orphanage for girls fell ill one by one within two weeks. Out of 21 girls, 12 of them contracted the sleep disorder. Six of them passed away within the first 10 days. However, many families who lived in the same house with the patients never got sick.

Because the structural changes in the brain resembled Parkinson’s disease, doctors experimentally used Parkinson’s medications on the patients. They observed that one medication could awaken patients who had been asleep for more than 30 years.

If you’d like to learn more about the disease:

You can watch the dramatic story of patients who managed to wake up thanks to that experimental medication in a heartwarming film.

Oliver Sacks was an expert in the fields of neurology and psychology in the 1960s. He was also one of the expert doctors working at the facility where the experimental drug was administered to sleep patients. In those years, he recounted the experiences of the patients who had been asleep for nearly 40 years after waking up and the cases he witnessed in his memoir called “Awakenings.” Yapı Kredi Yayınları has also translated this book into Turkish, along with the doctor’s other publications.

The book was later adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. You can watch the trailer for “Awakenings” below.

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I thought Netflix, which made the popular “The Sandman” series, would feature this movie on its platform as well. Unfortunately, you can’t watch the film on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Disney+. At least not for now. The print edition of the memoir has also run out. However, you can still find the book in secondhand bookstores.

By the way, some historians believe that this epidemic did not occur for the first time in the 1910s. They suggest that it might have occurred under different names in various places and times, but it may have gone unnoticed because it wasn’t reported properly. Here are some dates and regions where this epidemic might have occurred under different names:

  • 1529 in England: English Sweats
  • 1597 in Italy: Mal Mazzuco
  • 1672 in Germany: Kriebelkrankheit
  • 1754 in Sweden: Rafania
  • 1890 in Italy: Nona
Sources: BrainIndyTurkCuriousHistorianTheConversation

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