Narcolepsy refers to a serious and rare brain disorder that causes a person to fall asleep at any time. This chronic condition interrupts the normal sleeping pattern and is classified as hypersomnia. Hypersomnias are sleep disorders that are typically characterized by increased daytime sleepiness.
In many cases, narcolepsy is caused by an autoimmune disorder, where the body’s own antibodies target healthy cells and tissues.
In narcolepsy, these autoantibodies attack certain regions of the brain that are responsible for the release of a neurotransmitter involved in sleep regulation called orexin. This leads to a deficiency in orexin and narcolepsy symptoms develop. In some cases of narcolepsy, however, the levels of orexin appear to be normal and the exact cause of the condition remains unclear.
Narcolepsy symptoms usually begin during adolescence or young adulthood and may persist for life. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include:
- Sudden “sleep attacks” or falling asleep without warning while walking, driving, talking or eating, for example.
- Excessive drowsiness and day time sleepiness
- Cataplexy or sudden but short-term weakness of muscles as a response to emotions such as anger or laughter.
Diagnosis and treatment
To diagnose narcolepsy, a detailed history of the symptoms as well as any family history of the condition is first obtained. The patient may be asked to keep a sleep diary to help track sleep patterns. Various tests may be carried out to help rule out other conditions that can also cause daytime drowsiness. If narcolepsy is suspected, a patient is referred to a sleep specialist who will perform in-depth tests to examine their sleep pattern.
There is currently no cure for narcolepsy and treatment is aimed at managing symptoms and reducing any negative impact the condition has on day to day living. Often, patients are advised to take short naps throughout the day and a schedule is drawn up that helps the patient adjust to a napping routine. Sticking to a specific bed time can also help and patients should try to ensure they sleep for at least eight hours every night.
Narcolepsy usually does not cause any serious health problems but can affect a person’s quality of life. People who suffer from narcolepsy may suffer from depression, which should be quickly and appropriately treated.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc