Mannequin Challenge Causes Dangerous Sleep Paralysis

"We now have evidence that a social media fad has led to catastrophic results." - Dr. Elvin Montbard, Harvard University


An Unusual Experience: A Terrifying Day in Boston

For Boston resident Megan Brown, January 11th should have begun as a typical weekday morning. Megan Brown woke up to her alarm at 6 am in her North End apartment and then things went terribly wrong. She was awake and conscious, yet unable to move. Her body lay completely still as her alarm continued to ring.

Her roommate, Ali Sherwin, recalled, "I knew something really weird was going on because Megan was an early riser who always jumped out of bed to get a head start on her day before leaving for work. It seemed very strange to hear her alarm blaring for a few minutes without interruption. I don't think I had ever heard it for more than 10 seconds."

Sherwin, understandably concerned, knocked on Brown's door, and, lacking a response, rushed in. She found her roommate and friend of eight years lying completely still with her eyes open. Sherwin, a physician at Tufts Medical Center, checked Brown's pulse and breath, both of which seemed normal, and then began to gently shake Brown. After several minutes of increasingly frantic attempts to help her friend wake up, Sherwin said, "Megan finally began blinking nervously, took a deep breath, and asked me why she couldn't move. She was terrified." Sherwin had called 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrived soon after Brown's temporary paralysis ended. Brown was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital for testing and evaluation.

At first, the medical staff believed that Brown was experiencing sleep paralysis, a state in which individuals endure a brief inability to move, typically a few seconds. However, after realizing that by the time Brown was able to move, nearly 20 minutes had elapsed, the staff knew that something else was going on. More tests were done, including an evaluation of Brown's recent activities. Brown had taken part in four "Mannequin Challenges" as an organizer and participant, and that fact began to become more of a focus of the medical investigation. Brown was documented as the first case of hyper-extended sleep paralysis (HESP). The medical community is now worried that an outbreak may afflict tens of thousands of people over the next few months.


The Mannequin Challenge: All Fun & Games

The Mannequin Challenge, in which participants remain motionless while the camera filming them weaves its way around and between them, became a viral social media phenomenon last fall. It was popular in diverse groups across the globe, with participants including the Portugal national soccer team and star Cristiano Ronaldo, NBA superstar Steph Curry and his wife, singer-songwriter Adele, and Michelle Obama.

Gym Mannequin Challenge

The above video shows why the Mannequin Challenge became so popular: it is fun, allows for creativity, and looks really cool. As you can see, everyone in the video looks like a mannequin, carefully holding unique poses as the camera sweeps around them.

An estimated 22 million Americans have participated in the challenge since it began last October.


Long-Term Effects: A Warning From the Scientific Community

Megan Brown's case seemed like an anomaly at first. Over the last two months, however, similar cases were documented in Philadelphia, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, San Francisco, and Tel Aviv. While the Mannequin Challenge appears to be a playful and innocent activity, new research conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that participants are at-risk for experiencing hyper-extended sleep paralysis (HESP).

Sleep paralysis itself is not uncommon: 40 percent of Americans are affected at some point during their lifetime and six percent endure recurring sleep paralysis. Yet sleep paralysis does not last very long and is considered uncomfortable yet safe. NIH has reported 62 cases of HESP in which otherwise healthy individuals have experienced "consciousness without mobility" for 15 to 50 minutes at a time. In all cases, those affected had participated in at least one Mannequin Challenge event.

HESP can be dangerous -- and extraordinarily scary -- for those afflicted. Harvard Medical School neurologist Dr. Franklin Lestar noted, "the most disconcerting finding is that there does not seem to be any discernible predictor for which Mannequin Challenge participants will be afflicted." Therefore, there is no way to know which of the millions of people worldwide may experience hyper-extended paralysis the next time they wake up.


Early Hypothesis on Triggers for HESP

While the consensus is that the Mannequin Challenge causes HESP, the exact relationship between the event and the disorder has not been established. University of Pennsylvania neurologist Dr. R. Anthony Harris shared his hypothesis in the American Journal of Medicine. He argued, "As silly as it sounds, the old wives' tale we tell our children that 'if you keep making that face, it will stay that way forever,' has some truth. However, it is not the body that stays that way on its own. It is the mind that creates neuro-sensogenic loops that prevent the brain from communicating with the body and instructing it to move.

There is ample evidence to support Harris' position. A (notably small) study conducted by the Mayo Clinic closely monitored the brain activity of six individuals who have experienced Mannequin Challenge-induced HESP for 10 consecutive days and nights. Four of the study's participants experienced at least one episode of HESP during the study, and, in each case, the brain was firing neurons that were unable to transfer due to an expansion of synaptic clefts. Mayo Clinic Senior Director of Research Dr. Sally Chung said, "The brain knows what it wants to do, but it is unable to send the signals far, which effectively creates a series of 'unanswered calls.'" Chung says that eventually, the clefts shrink, which ends the HESP incident, therefore bringing mobility back to the individual afflicted.

Mannequin Challenge Causes Dangerous Sleep Paralysis

A brain scan from the Mayo Clinic's study shows a patient undergoing HESP, with constant firing of neurons and no transfer of signals due to expanded synaptic clefts.


Hope for Those Afflicted: Core Flytes

Due to both the devastating impact and unpredictable nature of HESP, the research community has formed a diverse and unprecedented coalition to tackle this emergency. Early research by the newly formed HESP Research Board consisting of experts in the field of neurology, social science, kinesiology, and ethnochoreology (the study of dance), has identified effective preventative measures.

The group recommends that those who participated in the Mannequin Challenge incorporate basic exercises that increase proprioception and neuromuscular connectivity. Harvard's Dr. Lestar, the director of the HESP Research Board, said, "The most effective approach for preventing HESP is to use Core Flyte dynamic stability training tools for 15 minutes, three times a week. Exercising with Core Flytes increases the brain's ability to defend against synaptic cleft expansion by developing stronger neuromuscular connections." Core Flyte exercises, which involve performing bodyweight movements while on small, padded platforms that move on three balls, keep muscles and minds active for extended periods of time. Dr. Lestar's team has found that the increased muscle activation is effective for fighting off the threat of HESP.

While conclusive results from the HESP Research Board are pending publication, the team recommends that "anyone who has been a member of a Mannequin Challenge event, even one that wasn't that long or entertaining, should immediately order Core Flytes and begin a safe exercise regimen." In addition, the group has petitioned the World Health Organization to add the Mannequin Challenge to its list of unsafe activities, along with cigarette smoking and consumption of foods high in saturated fat.

Mannequin Challenge Causes Dangerous Sleep Paralysis

Please take precautions before taking part in the next fad... and always check the date of the articles you read!

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Jeff Latimer & Jeremy Greenberg
Flyte Fitness