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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Medical plea key to Buck's defence
Alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms
REM guitarist Peter Buck, who has been acquitted of attacking BA staff on a transatlantic flight to London, claimed that he had no recollection of assaulting staff or ransacking the first-class cabin.

Isleworth Crown Court was told that Mr Buck was suffering from a condition known as non-insane automatism at the time of the incident.

It was claimed that this condition was brought by combining alcohol and a sleeping pill at the start of the flight.

Non-insane automatism is a legal term, rather than a term to describe a medical condition.

Essentially, automatism is defined legally as acting involuntarily.

There are two types of the condition: insane automatism and non-insane automatism.

Insane automatism is caused by a "disease of the mind", while non-insane automatism is linked to external factors.

In Mr Buck's case the condition was blamed on taking an Ambien sleeping pill and drinking wine at the start of his flight.

He described being scared, foggy and convinced, following his arrest, that he had suffered a heart attack.

Ambien belongs to a group of medicines called central nervous system (CNS) depressants (medicines that slow down the nervous system).

It is associated with a range of side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness, light-headedness, or problems with coordination or memory.

Professor Ian Hindmarch, of Surrey University, told the court that a single Ambien tablet could produce profound changes in behaviour - particularly if the sleep pattern is interrupted.

He said it was possible that "underlying aggression" could be brought to the surface.

Combining Ambien with alcohol would "enhance and magnify" the symptoms.

Sleep controls

Neil Stanley, director of the Sleep Research Unit at Surrey University, said it was possible that alcohol, drugs and other stimuli could disrupt the mental processes that ensure that the body does not endanger itself while asleep.

When these controls are disturbed during a phase of deep sleep this can result in sleepwalking, which is usually benign and only ever results in injury to the person doing the sleepwalking.

However, if the controls are disturbed during dream sleep this can result in a condition called REM behaviour disorder.

Under normal circumstances, the body becomes paralysed during dream, or REM (Rapid Eye Movement), sleep so that it cannot act out the scenarios taking place in the dreams.

However, faulty controls can lead to people acting out their dreams, which, if violent, may place others in danger.

Mr Stanley said: "In some people this happens naturally, and in others alcohol or medications may cause them to flip out.

"However, it can also be an easy excuse, because a person acting out their dreams in this way would appear to be awake."

Test case

The concept of non-insane automatism was previously tested in English courts in the case of a man called Burgess.

The defendant had visited his neighbour, and she had fallen asleep on the sofa while watching videos.

She awoke after being hit on the head to find the defendant standing over her, about to bring the video recorder down on her head.

Shortly afterwards Burgess appeared to come to his senses, and showed great concern for what he had done.

He claimed he had gone to sleep, and only regained consciousness at the point at which he was holding the woman down on the floor.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, and an order was made for the accused to be detained in a psychiatric hospital.

However, he argued on appeal that he was not suffering from a mental condition, but from non-insane automatism.

His argument was rejected.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Music
Peter Buck's rich pageant
05 Apr 02 | UK
REM's 'southern gentleman'
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