03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Not Guilty By Reason Of Sleep

Let’s be thankful that the sleep disorder suffered by a
British man who unwittingly killed his wife in his sleep is extremely rare.

When the Associated
Press reported
on an unusual murder
case out of England
, it soon got lots of attention and raised more than a
few intrigued eyebrows. Brian Thomas, who pleaded not guilty by reason of
insanity, was accused of killing his wife of nearly 40 years. He’d strangled her during a nightmare
about fighting off an intruder. Prosecutors withdrew the case after experts
explained that he wasn’t insane at all. Rather, he suffered from a rare, long-term sleep disorder that put
him in a state of “automatism,” in which his mind had no control over his body.
So he strangled her without knowing it.  

Mr. Thomas will not have to be sent to a psychiatric
hospital, though I can’t imagine how he explained himself to his two daughters,
who lost their mother in the incident. This is not the first time I have heard
of a case like this. I think this has occurred in the US, in my own town of
Scottsdale no less. I have seen people do some pretty complicated behaviors in
their sleep, and the culprit here apparently is a sleep

Could this happen to you? Not so fast. What should be
pointed out is that not only is this kind of sleep disorder very rare, but it
doesn’t usually stand on its own. In other words, people who suffer from brief periods of unconscious behaviors
during which they are unaware of their actions typically have an underlying condition. Automatic behavior (the type of
behavior apparently exhibited by Mr. Thomas) often occurs in certain types of
epilepsy, seizure disorders, Narcolepsy, or REM Behavior Disorder or as a side
effect of certain medications.  

Mr. Thomas would do well to check into a sleep lab,
if he hasn’t already.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael Breus, Ph.D.

The Sleep Doctor™

This article on sleep is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.