Recent autopsy studies have shown a reduced amount of hypocretin-positive neurons in patients with narcolepsy with cataplexy. Researchers have postulated that some type of immune response may affect these hypocretin cells.
Hypocretin deficiencies might set off the following chemical responses that may produce sleep attacks:
- Lower levels of histamine, a chemical that promotes wakefulness
- Low levels of epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), a hormone important in alertness and arousal
- Increase in acetylcholine, which affects REM sleep
- Changes in the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which is believed to be important in preventing arousal
- Changes in dopamine, an important neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) that helps regulate sleep
- Lower levels of leptin, a hormone associated with obesity when levels decline (people with narcolepsy tend to be overweight)
- Higher-than-normal secretion of growth-hormone during the day, which may play a role in sudden falling-asleep episodes
Narcolepsy has a genetic component and tends to run in families. An estimated 8 - 10% of people with narcolepsy have a close relative who has the disorder. An individual with a family member who has narcolepsy is 20 to 40 times more likely to have narcolepsy, compared to a person with no family history of the disease.
However, genetics are not the only factor involved in narcolepsy. Narcolepsy most likely involves a combination of genetics and one or more environmental triggers, such as infection, trauma, hormonal changes, immune system problems, or stress. Researchers are looking for specific genetic mutations that may make individuals susceptible to this disorder, and have discovered recently that most affected individuals carry the HLA DQB1(*)0602 gene. More recent studies also show that the TCR-alpha gene, which interacts with the HLA genes, is also involved in narcolepsy.
It has been theorized that narcolepsy may be an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system may be tricked into perceiving its own proteins to be antigens. (Antigens are foreign substances targeted for attack by immune factors in the body.)
An antigen is a substance that can provoke an immune response.
Important autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and type 1 diabetes. In such diseases, the immune system overproduces potent factors called cytokines, which cause inflammation and injury in the susceptible cells and tissues affected by the disease. Most autoimmune diseases also tend to afflict those with particular genetically determined molecules of the immune system called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs).
Some research suggests that an immune attack in narcolepsy may occur against cells containing the brain peptide hypocretin (orexin), resulting in deficiencies that are now believed to be major components of the narcolepsy process. HLAs, particularly a subgroup known as (HLA)DQB1-0602, have been strongly associated with narcolepsy and low levels of hypocretin. Narcolepsy patients who carry this HLA group tend to have a specific collection of symptoms that include cataplexy and periodic limb movement disorder. However, roughly 20% of people without narcolepsy carry these HLA types.