The Extremes of Sleeping Disorders

Kristin Osika

How long can you survive without sleep? Right now, there is not a definitive answer. In most sleep-deprivation cases, humans’ bodies inevitably put themselves to sleep. They fall into short “microsleeps,” a brief period (around 30 seconds) in which an individual becomes unconscious. The exception to this natural (and unavoidable) human-impulse is a disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). FFI is an extremely uncommon brain disease. Generally, FFI is caused by a mutation, but occasionally, the disease develops on its own (Sporadic Fatal Insomnia). Once diagnosed, patients’ average survival time is 18 months. One of the most well known cases is that of Michael Corke. After turning 40, Michael began to have trouble falling asleep. His insomnia became worse and worse until he began to lack sleep completely. Eventually, Michael was admitted to a hospital where physicians, unsuccessfully, tried to induce a coma. His body neglected to shut down and Michael died around six months later. This time period for complete absence of sleep has since been exceeded, but FFI has yet to be cured. Once symptoms arise, patients will be unable to survive this horrific disease.


Contrarily, can humans over-sleep? Again, research has yet to result in a concrete answer. There are studies suggesting that spending excessive time asleep is connected to some health risks. In some cases, extra sleep is linked to depression, Alzheimer’s, and decreased cognitive function, but in other research, lack thereof is linked to those same health hazards, among others. Research on this topic has made great leaps, however, is in need of further exploration. Currently, the longest period of unconsciousness in recorded history is 37 years and 111 days. This record is held by Elaine Esposito, who was in a coma from 1934 to 1978. At age six, Elaine was anesthetized for her appendectomy surgery and never woke. She spent ten months in the hospital until her family could no longer afford her stay and brought her home. Throughout the coma, Elaine suffered other conditions, but stayed with her family even when they moved from Illinois to Florida.   At age 43, Elaine died after being in a vegetative state for over 37 years.


There are many alarming sleep disorders including Sleep Paralysis, REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, Sexomnia, and Fatal Familia Insomnia, however, Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS) stands out. Known as “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome”, KLS causes episodes of hypersomnia. On average, these periods of excessive sleep last just over a week. Affecting humans, primarily adolescent males, at a rate of one in a million, KLS is extremely rare and does not have a cure. In one reported case, Jacob, an 11-year-old boy was diagnosed. “At first we thought he banged his head and had a concussion,” wrote Jacobs mother. For four months, Jacob was sleeping excessively and was unable to do much. After going to numerous doctors who could not identify his problem, Jacob’s parents found a pediatrician who suggested it might be KLS. After his diagnosis in 2011, Jacob continued to experience excessive-sleep episodes. Now in 2016, Jacob still struggles with the condition but “it is much more like dealing with a cold and the episodes have decreased.” Throughout Jacob’s time with KLS, he has undergone many tests, tried many different medications, and experimented with different diets. Every year, Jacob’s episodes have decreased, however, the disease still interrupts his daily life and there are not many options or measures he can take. It is not known what causes KLS and the disease is often misdiagnosed at first, for it has similar symptoms to bipolar depression. Leaving KLS patients with many unanswered questions, this disorder is yet another unexplained sleep-related illness.


Rose Beatty ‘17


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