Although the cause of narcolepsy was not determined for many years after its discovery, scientists had discovered conditions that seemed to be associated with an increase in an individual's risk of having the disorder. Specifically, there appeared to be a strong link between narcoleptic individuals and certain genetic conditions.
One factor that seemed to predispose an individual to narcolepsy involved an area of Chromosome 6 known as the HLA complex. There appeared to be a correlation between narcoleptic individuals and certain variations in HLA genes, although it was not required for the condition to occur.
Certain variations in the HLA complex were thought to increase the risk of an auto-immune response to protein-producing neurons in the brain. The protein produced, called hypocretin or orexin, is responsible for controlling appetite and sleep patterns. Individuals with narcolepsy often have reduced numbers of these protein-producing neurons in their brains.
The neural control of normal sleep states and the relationship to narcolepsy are only partially understood. In humans, narcoleptic sleep is characterized by a tendency to go abruptly from a waking state to REM sleep with little or no intervening non-REM sleep. The changes in the motor and proprioceptive systems during REM sleep have been studied in both human and animal models.
During normal REM sleep, spinal and brainstem alpha motor neuron depolarization produces almost complete atonia of skeletal muscles via an inhibitory descending reticulospinal pathway. Acetylcholine may be one of the neurotransmitters involved in this pathway. In narcolepsy, the reflex inhibition of the motor system seen in cataplexy is believed identical to that seen in normal REM sleep.
In 2004 researchers in Australia induced narcolepsy-like symptoms in mice by injecting them with antibodies from narcoleptic humans. The research has been published in the Lancet providing strong evidence suggesting that some cases of narcolepsy might be caused by autoimmune disease. Narcolepsy is strongly associated with HLA-DQB1*0602 genotype.
There is also an association with HLA-DR2 and HLA-DQ1. This may represent linkage disequilibrium. Despite the experimental evidence in human narcolepsy that there may be an inherited basis for at least some forms of narcolepsy, the mode of inheritance remains unknown. Some cases are associated with genetic diseases such as Niemann-Pick disease or Prader-Willi syndrome.
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