Narcolepsy is a relatively rare condition that affects approximately 3 individuals out of every 10,000. Despite its uncommon nature, narcolepsy has gained recognition among many people, primarily due to one of its prominent symptoms: difficulty in maintaining wakefulness.
Individuals with narcolepsy struggle to stay awake and frequently experience episodes of sudden and unexpected sleepiness. Moreover, patients with narcolepsy may encounter sudden muscle weakness triggered by intense emotions like laughter or anger, as well as a sensation of being paralyzed upon waking. Additionally, they may have vivid dreams as they drift off to sleep.
What causes Narcolepsy ?
Recent research on narcolepsy has shown that narcolepsy is due to damage to a small group of cells in the brain that produce the neuro transmitter orexin or hypocretin. It is not clear what causes these orexin producing cells to become damaged, but this process can be triggered by infection or illness. Symptoms most commonly develop in late teenage years, and once established, symptoms persist.
How is Narcolepsy Diagnosed ?
It is not uncommon for individuals with narcolepsy to receive additional diagnoses such as depression or psychosis due to the fatigue and hallucinations they experience. However, when cataplexy, which refers to sudden muscle weakness, is present, the diagnosis becomes clearer. To confirm the diagnosis and eliminate other potential causes of excessive sleepiness, a sleep study followed by a daytime napping test called a “multiple sleep latency test” is typically conducted. Once narcolepsy is confirmed, treatment involves implementing strategies like scheduled napping and sleep management, alongside the use of medications to address sleepiness, cataplexy, and other associated symptoms.
Currently, medications such as modafinil and dexamphetamine are commonly prescribed to alleviate sleepiness, while anti-depressant medications are utilized to manage cataplexy. In the future, there is hope that narcolepsy can be treated with orexin replacement therapy, and active research is underway to transform this into a reality.