Playing a sound associated with a positive daytime experience during sleep may reduce nightmare frequency, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology.

Patients who experience nightmares are commonly prescribed imagery rehearsal therapy in which they’re coached to rehearse positive versions of their most frequent nightmares to improve outcomes. But researchers in Switzerland tested whether also playing a positive sound through a wireless headband during sleep would help.

“There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being,” says senior author Lampros Perogamvros, MD, a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva, in a press release. “Based on this observation, we had the idea that we could help people by manipulating emotions in their dreams. In this study, we show that we can reduce the number of emotionally very strong and very negative dreams in patients suffering from nightmares.”

While imagery rehearsal therapy is effective, some cases are unresponsive, according to the press release. To test whether sound exposure during sleep could boost success, Perogamvros and his colleagues looked at 36 patients, all receiving imagery rehearsal therapy. 

Half of the group received no additional treatment, while the other half were required to create an association between a positive version of their nightmare and a sound during an imagination exercise, which they needed to practice daily, and wear a wireless headband that could send them the sound during REM sleep for two weeks. 

“We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures, for example performing imagery rehearsal therapy every day and wearing the sleep headband during the night,” says Perogamvros. “We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.” 

Both groups experienced a decrease in nightmares per week, but the half that received the combination therapy had fewer nightmares post-intervention, as well as three months later. They also experienced more joy in their dreams. 

According to the press release, the results support that such combined therapy should be trialed on larger scales and with different kinds of populations to determine the extent and generalizability of its efficiency.

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