Can you commit suicide while sleeping?
2010-07-09 0:00

By Melissa Dahl |

Suicide while sleepwalking is a real nightmare!

A man jumps out a fifth-story window. A woman marches into oncoming traffic. Another woman loads a gun and shoots herself. All appear to be open-and-shut cases of suicide, but, then again, maybe not. In rare cases, such deaths could be caused by something called parasomnia pseudo-suicide, experts say.

In other words: It’s possible to kill yourself in your sleep.

Recently, the New York Times reported on such a case. On the morning of May 30, a young, promising designer named Tobias Wong was found dead in his New York City home; he’d apparently hanged himself in the night. But Wong had a known history of insomnia and extreme sleepwalking episodes, among them billing clients, cooking a steak dinner or even creating silly outfits for his cats, the paper reported. His sleepwalking condition had apparently worsened with the stress of growing his design business.

Could his death be a tragic result of his sleepwalking?

There are documented cases of suicide while sleepwalking, says Michel Cramer Bornemann, the lead investigator of sleep forensics at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Bornemann spends his days working on the legal implications of sleepwalking. He’ll help build a case to defend a sleepwalker who wanders into a stranger’s home, or, on the other hand, prosecute a woman who claims she was sleepwalking when she loaded a gun, shot and killed someone.

“If you think about sleep, the part of the brain that makes us human is essentially offline,” Bornemann says. He’s talking about the prefrontal cortex, which controls our personalities and our decision making processes. In sleepwalking, “the behaviors are either very primal, reflexive behaviors, or they’re overlearned behaviors that are kind of built into our neural networks that have become habitual.”

On NPR’s “This American Life,”comedian Mike Birbiglia relates experience with the sleepwalking disorder and an episode that nearly killed him. While staying at a motel in Walla Walla, Wash., he had a nightmare that a missile was headed for his hotel room. While still asleep, he got out of bed and jumped out the second story window. To cope with the disorder, he now sleeps in a sleeping bag.

Sleepwalking is more common among kids, affecting about 12 percent of American children, Bonneman says. But as the brain matures, most people grow out of it – it’s much rarer for adults to sleepwalk, and only about 4 percent of Americans adults do.

“But technically, it can happen in a lot of us,” Bonneman says. “This is something that all of us are potentially capable of.”

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