Narcolepsy Narcolepsy is a disease that has been on the receiving end of many jokes in our society. Yet it is a serious and life altering disease that is no laughing matter to the 1,000 in every 2,000 people in the U.S. that have it. I was drawn to this article because a former supervisor that I worked with had this disease. She was prescribed the drug Ritalin. It always impressed me that she could confront an angry client or give a speech without succumbing to the symptoms of her disease. She revealed that her case of narcolepsy wasn’t that bad, but without the Ritalin she would just fall asleep anywhere.
“The overall incident of narcolepsy is about 10 times that of Lou Gehrig’s disease, half that of multiple sclerosis, five times that of cystic fibrosis, and about one quarter that of Parkinson’s disease.” Narcolepsy is a chronic disease, but not a progressive one. It is a puzzling neurological disorder that causes cataplexy, the loss of skeletal muscle tone without loss of consciousness, and persistent daytime sleepiness. Cataplectic attacks of narcolepsy can be triggered by exceedingly strong emotions such as laughter, embarrassment, anger, and athletic or sexual exertion. In tests on narcoleptic dogs, Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford and his co-workers identified a gene responsible for narcolepsy in dogs. “His research group determined that the dogs carry a mutation in the receptor for a neurotransmitter called hypocretin or orexin.” These receptors are missing a critical part, so they can’t respond normally to messages they receive. This is a recessive trait in the canines. However, they state that it is unlikely that most human narcoleptics have these mutated genes.
Most narcoleptics have no narcoleptic relatives, and the disease does not occur until the second or third decade of life. Also, they have concluded that in 75 percent of the cases in which narcolepsy occurs in an identical twin, the other twin is unaffected. This, they say, indicates that environmental conditions are important in human narcolepsy. What environmental conditions are they? Damage to the hypocretin/orexin system due to environmental factors may mimic the symptoms caused by mutations. They feel that narcolepsy may be an auto-immune disease, in that the body turns against one of its own tissues are cell types. “The next step will be to determine whether the immune systems of narcoleptics are mistakenly targeting the hypocretin/orexin receptors in their own brains as foreign.” according to Jerome Siegel.
There are no concrete answers at the present time. Just hypotheses. Right now the only thing that science has to offer a narcoleptic is drugs to control their symptoms. For which I am sure that the sufferers of this disease are very grateful. We never seem to care about a disease until it strikes us or a loved one or friend.
I’m thankful we have scientists out there who are working on answers to the causes and cures of various diseases, that hopefully, we may never have occasion to know about.