NonREM Disorders of Arousal and Related Parasomnias: an Updated Review

Neurotherapeutics. 2021 Jan;18(1):124-139. doi: 10.1007/s13311-021-01011-y. Epub 2021 Feb 1.


Parasomnias are abnormal behaviors and/or experiences emanating from or associated with sleep typically manifesting as motor movements of varying semiology. We discuss mainly nonrapid eye movement sleep and related parasomnias in this article. Sleepwalking (SW), sleep terrors (ST), confusional arousals, and related disorders result from an incomplete dissociation of wakefulness from nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Conditions that provoke repeated cortical arousals, and/or promote sleep inertia, lead to NREM parasomnias by impairing normal arousal mechanisms. Changes in the cyclic alternating pattern, a biomarker of arousal instability in NREM sleep, are noted in sleepwalking disorders. Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is characterized by a disruption of the nocturnal fast with episodes of feeding after arousal from sleep. SRED is often associated with the use of sedative-hypnotic medications, in particular the widely prescribed benzodiazepine receptor agonists. Compelling evidence suggests that nocturnal eating may in some cases be another nonmotor manifestation of Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Initial management should focus upon decreasing the potential for sleep-related injury followed by treating comorbid sleep disorders and eliminating incriminating drugs. Sexsomnia is a subtype of disorders of arousal, where sexual behavior emerges from partial arousal from nonREM sleep. Overlap parasomnia disorders consist of abnormal sleep-related behavior both in nonREM and REM sleep. Status dissociatus is referred to as a breakdown of the sleep architecture where an admixture of various sleep state markers is seen without any specific demarcation. Benzodiazepine therapy can be effective in controlling SW, ST, and sexsomnia, but not SRED. Paroxetine has been reported to provide benefit in some cases of ST. Topiramate, pramipexole, and sertraline can be effective in SRED. Pharmacotherapy for other parasomnias continues to be less certain, necessitating further investigation. NREM parasomnias may resolve spontaneously but require a review of priming and predisposing factors.

Keywords: Parasomnia; confusional arousal; disorders of arousal; parasomnia overlap disorder; restless legs syndrome; sexsomnia; sleep terror; sleepwalking; somnambulism; status dissociatus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Parasomnias / diagnosis*
  • Parasomnias / physiopathology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Arousal Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Sleep Arousal Disorders / physiopathology