The Genetic Code of Sleepwalking

woman laying on bed

The study of four generations published in the journal Neurology of one US family has been the key to discovering the variation on chromosome 20. Nine out of the 22 family members were sleepwalkers which pointed to a genetic link. Each family member has a 50% chance of passing on the faulty genetic sequence to a child. More research on the faulty gene sequence needs to be done before the whole story can be unravelled and possible treatments developed.

Some Sleepwalking Continues Into Adulthood

Although most childhood sleepwalkers grow out of the condition, some people continue into adulthood which may have devastating consequences. Approximately 10% of children are sleepwalkers but this reduces to one in 50 adults. Sleepwalking occurs in “slow wave” sleep which happens shortly after falling asleep and this type of sleep lasts longer in child sleep patterns.

Sleepwalking Triggers

Adults may experience sleepwalking after a long break if they experience certain triggers. A major change in life – such as starting night working or shift work, extreme stress and money and relationship worries – can be a trigger. These change the sleep pattern and can cause sleep deprivation. Some young people have a recurrence when they start university. Lack of sleep, stress, a noisy environment and too much alcohol can be triggers – all of these being factors in the student life!

Waking the Sleepwalker

Most people will return to bed on their own but can be woken if necessary. It is not dangerous for the sleepwalker to be woken up but, due to his or her confused state, the person waking them should be wary. If the sleepwalker has got into the wrong bed, he or she may take some convincing to move, insisting that the other person is in the wrong room.

Complex Sleepwalking Activities

Although sleepwalking can consist of simple movements, some people have been known to cook meals, drive a car and wander off, sometimes naked. This can be particularly embarrassing if locked out of a hotel room; if the person urinates in an unsuitable place or if the person tries to get into the wrong bed with an unsuspecting person.

A Legal Defence

Although many stories seem amusing and bizarre, there have been serious injuries and even deaths. Such activities as falling down stairs, leaving the house and wandering across roads and walking out of windows are all documented. Some people are prosecuted for crimes which are later found to be committed during bouts of sleepwalking and some have been known to turn on the computer and send emails of a dubious nature. Perhaps the discovery of the faulty gene could become a defence in law and a way of filtering out those people who claim sleepwalking without any evidence.

Sleepwalking is not confined to human beings. A sleepwalking dog called Bizkit has become a YouTube phenomenon. Presumably traditional triggers such as money and relationship worries, night work and alcohol cannot be blamed!


A.K. Licis, MD; D.M. Desruisseau, BS; K.A. Yamada, MD; S.P. Duntley, MD and C.A. Gurnett, MD, PhD. “Novel Genetic Findings in an Extended Family Pedigree With Sleepwalking.” Neurology, January 4. 2011 vol. 76 no. 1 49-52.