Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that causes daytime sleepiness, hallucinations, sleep paralysis and episodes of suddenly falling asleep. Narcolepsy is not completely understood, but researchers continue to look for the cause (or causes) in order to better understand the condition.
Theories about Narcolepsy
While no root cause of narcolepsy is known, evidence suggests that narcolepsy could be genetic in origin. Physicians studying the disorder believe that genes in affected individuals involve the chemicals produced by the brain to control the waking and sleeping cycles. Theoretically, if the brain becomes confused or produces the chemicals that tell the brain to sleep during waking hours, it could cause the sudden paralysis and falling asleep even as the body is doing other things such as driving a car or cooking a meal.
Other scientists believe that a lack of hypocretin production in the body could lead to a disruption in sleep patterns such as those seen in narcoleptics. Brain abnormalities are also being explored as a cause of narcolepsy, particularly abnormalities in the brain structures that regulate different portions of the sleep cycle. Researchers agree that narcolepsy is a neurological problem and relates to a problem in the brain chemistry of affected individuals; however they have yet to pinpoint a verifiable cause.
A lot of jokes are made at the expense of narcoleptics. The sight gag of a person just dropping where they stand and snoring on the ground is played for humor. For the person suffering from narcolepsy and the people in their lives, these episodes are not humorous. A narcoleptic is often advised to avoid operating heavy machinery such as a car, particularly if they experience frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, hallucinations or falling asleep.
Most narcoleptic patients do not walk into a doctor’s office and complain that they have narcolepsy. They may complain of being tired all the time, of not feeling rested and having hallucinations. In mild cases, they complain of falling asleep in meetings even after a full night’s sleep the night before. A physician will recommend a sleep study for patients who exhibit the symptoms of a sleep disorder, but they will not diagnose a sleep disorder without one.
During a sleep study, the patient will be hooked up to a series of monitoring devices including an EEG, a heart rate and respiration monitor and a leg monitor. They will sleep in a room under observation so that their sleep pattern, brain wave activity and physical responses can be carefully monitored. Some patients may require more than one night spent in the sleep study facility to determine the problem.
While narcolepsy can manifest in patients between the ages of 10 and 25, it typically appears in patients between the ages of 35 and 45. According to the National Institute of Neurological and Stroke Disorders, there is no cure for narcolepsy. Physicians can and do prescribe amphetamines to help patients combat the most debilitating symptoms such as suddenly falling asleep. Some antidepressants can help control hallucinations. In 1999, the FDA approved a non-amphetamine based wake drug that provides a stimulant to keep the brain in a waking cycle.
Narcolepsy, like many other neurological disorders, requires an adjustment of lifestyle for the patient. They have to manage their condition and use the prescriptions to help their symptoms. Research continues to seek why the condition occurs in order to find a cure or prevention.
If a person suspects that they suffer from narcolepsy or other sleep disorder, they should consult their physician for a sleep study, diagnosis and treatment.