Narcolepsy is one of those words that you've probably heard many times - either in conversation or in a movie. If someone asked though, could you actually answer the question: what is narcolepsy?
It is estimated that 1 in 3000 people in America suffer from narcolepsy. With a sleeping disorder this serious, maybe you should have a better understanding of just what narcolepsy is.
Narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder of the central nervous system where your brain is unable to regulate your sleep-wake cycles. A narcoleptic, as they are called, doesn't have any control over their sleeping and waking states - they experience uncontrollable and instantaneous episodes of sleep. These bouts of sleep can last anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few minutes.
People who have narcolepsy can experience these sleep episodes anywhere, anytime. It could happen while they are at school, at work, in the middle of a conversation or during an activity like driving - making it very dangerous indeed.
In addition to the more obvious signs of narcolepsy such as daytime sleepiness, narcoleptics may also experience hallucinations or vivid images resembling dreams when they are just about to fall asleep or immediately following waking up.
Sleep paralysis is another common occurrence in people suffering from narcolepsy. This total loss of reflexes while sleeping normally occurs in healthy sleepers only during REM sleep. During waking hours, narcoleptics may experience something similar - a instantaneous loss of muscle control, called cataplexy. If a narcoleptic experiences cataplexy, their body will respond as if they were fainting - they will lose all muscle control and collapse in place. This could last for seconds or minutes.
Another symptom of narcolepsy is disrupted nighttime sleep. Narcoleptics may be able to fall asleep without any serious problems but they usually have difficulty staying asleep. Their sleep could be disrupted by anything from insomnia and hypnic jerking to vivid dreams and sleep talking.
Although doctors know what causes narcolepsy, they don't actually know what causes what it is that causes narcolepsy. That is to say that sleep experts know that narcolepsy is caused by a lack of hypocretin - a neurotransmitter in the brain. They don't know, however, why narcoleptics are lacking in hypocretin. Neurons produce these chemicals known as neurotransmitters to communicate amongst themselves and to regulate our biological processes. Problems start to occur after somewhere around 70,000 brain cells containing hypocretin die out. This loss of hypocretin is what results in our bodies' inability to regulate sleep. While normal, healthy sleepers typically sleep in cycles ranging from 100 to 110 minutes long, beginning with non-REM sleep and moving into REM sleep, narcoleptics frequently enter into REM sleep within minutes of dozing off.
As of yet, narcolepsy cannot be cured - the loss of hypocretin in the brain is considered to be irreversible. That being said, two of the symptoms of narcolepsy - excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy - can be somewhat controlled by several drugs on the market which have been approved by the FDA.