Narcolepsy is characterized by recurrent attacks of sleepiness during the day. It is a debilitating and disabling disorder. Routine tasks are done automatically and often the sufferer may not remember doing them.
Another symptom, cataplexy, is the sudden loss of muscular control when angry, laughing, or in any state of high emotion. The person may even fall to floor and be unable to move or speak for a short time.
Some people are plagued by nightmares and hallucinations. They are terrified because they are unable to move (sleep paralysis,) call out or escape from the dream.
As well as being a disabling disorder, narcolepsy can be dangerous. Sleep attacks can come at any time, for instance while the person is operating a vehicle, using sharp electrical tools or carrying an infant.
Narcolepsy can cause many problems. It makes working difficult and interferes with everyday living as well as social functions. Research is ongoing and recent months have made several breakthroughs. Other research into the parts of the brain that control sleep and sleepiness may also contribute to the knowledge about the causes and treatment of narcolepsy.
At present, there is no cure for narcolepsy. The disorder can be partially controlled by lifestyle changes and drug therapy. Lifestyle changes include keeping a regular sleep schedule, having daytime naps and avoiding, when possible, anything that may over-stimulate the emotions and bring on an attack of cataplexy.
Narcolepsy appears to be hereditary, and there is evidence of a defective gene. The disorder is not restricted to humans. It also occurs in cats, dogs and horses.
Researchers at Stanford University,led by Emmanuel Minot, MD., Ph.D., have identified the gene that causes narcolepsy. This is good news for those who suffer from this debilitating illness, and for their families. Will a cure be forthcoming? Possibly. But it may take a while. The identification of the gene has taken 36 years of research.
So far the gene has been documented in dogs and mice, but researchers believe a similar faulty gene will turn up in human sufferers of narcolepsy. Once the human gene has been identified, this will lead to new methods of treatment and possibly a cure.
Narcolepsy is more common in men, according to a recent study done by the Mayo clinic. The study was aimed at determining gender and age specifications of the disorder. Results revealed a higher incidence among men and the disorder often began in the late twenties.
Self-help treatment that may help includes such behavioral changes as implementing short naps, better sleep habits and a reduction of stress. Avoidance of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine in the evenings may also be beneficial.
Doctors may prescribe medications to help control the symptoms of narcolepsy. However, many times the side effects of these drugs are worse than the original ailments.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland. It controls the sleep/wake rhythm of the body. It has been used with some success in controlling the symptoms of narcolepsy and other sleep disturbances. However, another study suggests that Melatonin may have adverse effects. It may cause nightmares and worsen depression. Further testing is advised before this hormone is given the green light.