Could NJ woman have sleepwalked to her death?

PHILADELPHIA, PA.; December 21, 2011

She says that last week, the 55-year-old came to her home in the middle of the night, seemingly "awake," but not.

Saturday night, police in Oaklyn, New Jersey got a report of a woman in pajamas, disoriented, walking on a residential street. They didn't find her then, but Monday, her body was found in nearby Newton Lake.

Dr. Karl Doghramji, the medical director at the Jefferson University Sleep Disorders Center, says most sleepwalkers don't go far afield. "They walk around inside a home, or just around the outside, and then wake up there," he told Action News.

"But they have been known to drive for miles, to walk for long distances and injure themself or other people, to eat, to even sexually assault others," Dr. Doghramji says.

He recalled a past patient who was very health-oriented and had never smoked. But when sleepwalking, the patient's husband would find her in the kitchen, eating foods she'd normally never touch - and smoking.

Sleepwalking occurs when the motor portion of the brain stays awake while the body and the rest of the brain - the sensory portion - sleeps.

While scientists don't completely understand sleepwalking, Dr. Doghramji says several factors contribute to it. First and foremost, a family history of it.

"There is a genetic predisposition to sleepwalking. Many people have that, but most don't act on it -" he says. "Unless there is a trigger, something that disrupts the slow wave phase of sleep."

Caffeine, sleep apnea, disorders like narcolepsy, some types of medication, or alcohol can all be triggers. The insomnia medication Ambien and Chantix, which is used to help smokers quit, carry black box warnings about possible sleepwalking.

"To treat sleepwalking, we take away the triggers," says Dr. Doghramji.

It is a myth that sleepwalkers shouldn't be awakened, however, they will be confused or disoriented for a time when they awake.

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