Researchers at EPFL University (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) in France used virtual reality to determine differences in body movements between sleepwalkers and non-sleepwalkers.
During the experiment, sleepwalkers and non-sleepwalkers wearing virtual reality headsets were asked to walk — while awake, that is — with an "avatar" toward a virtual target. They were then asked to follow the same instructions, but this time while counting down in sets of seven, starting at 200.
Scientists recorded the walking speed and movement accuracy of the sleepwalkers and non-sleepwalkers. While there was no difference between sleepwalkers and non-sleepwalkers performing the first task, non-sleepwalkers walked significantly slower to the target while counting backwards, suggesting that sleepwalkers may have a multi-tasking advantage over non-sleepwalkers.
"We found that sleepwalkers continued to walk at the same speed, with the same precision as before and were more aware of their movements than non-sleepwalkers," according to Olaf Blanke, an EPFL neuroscientist, Geek.com reported.
"The research is also a first in the field of action-monitoring, providing important biomarkers for sleepwalkers while they are awake," Blanke said.
Sleepwalking, also referred to as somnambulism, currently affects 2 to 4 percent of adults and more than 10 percent of children. Sleepwalkers can perform activities ranging from simply walking to getting dressed, playing a musical instrument or even driving a car, while fast asleep.
Although scientists know that sleepwalking occurs during slow-wave sleep, the exact causes of sleepwalking are unknown. Several theories include increased slow-wave sleep, delayed maturity of the central nervous system, fever, sleep deprivation or even excessive tiredness.