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Physiologically, it is closely related to the paralysis that occurs as a natural part of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is known as REM atonia. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain awakes from a REM state, but the bodily paralysis persists. This leaves the person fully conscious, but unable to move. In addition, the state may be accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (hypnopompic or hypnagogic) and an acute sense of danger .
Physiologically, certain neurons in the brain stem, known as REM sleep-on cells, (located in the pontine tegmentum), are particularly active during REM sleep. The release of certain neurotransmitters, the monoamines (norepinephrine, serotonin and histamine), is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body's muscles don't move.