What Causes Narcolepsy? A Look At the Science Behind the Headlines

What’s all this about taking a bite of an apple then falling into a deep sleep for years and years?

That’s what happened to Snow White, and as far fetched as it sounds, narcolepsy is the metaphorical apple that people with this rare condition seem to have accidentally ingested.

In reality, narcolepsy is a chronic brain disorder that causes a person to unwillingly fall asleep. It also causes excessive daytime sleepiness, and cataplexy (the sudden loss of muscle control). It affects approximately one in 3,000 people and there is no known cure, but one day that may change.

Source: http://conceptartworld.com

After the H1N1 Spanish flu pandemic, a unique sleeping sickness overtook many people with devastating effects. It was called Encephalitis Lethargica, which in its initial stages, caused either excessive sleepiness or insomnia.

As the disease progressed, it caused psychiatric disorders, and finally, it disabled its victims with Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms. The common factor was that patients all had lesions in the area of the brain that controls the “sleep switch.”

Fortunately, Encephalitis Lethargica seemed to disappear in the 1930s, but the research that was conducted surrounding the condition has given scientists a better view into the brain mechanisms that cause narcolepsy.

It also tipped off researchers that  there’s an environmental component to narcolepsy when they discovered nearly all their subjects had one particular HLA gene. HLA genes control the sleep center in the brain.

Source: http://www.flu.gov

The most recent discovery occurred in 2009 when more than 30 million European patients received a flu vaccination to try to stem a rising flu epidemic.

More than 1,300 cases of narcolepsy were linked to that specific vaccine.

Scientists and researchers are slowly unraveling the mystery that surrounds narcolepsy, and they seem to be closing in on determining exactly what causes the onset– one step closer to a cure.


Erica Zahn

Erica Zahn

Erica Zahn is passionate about raising awareness of rare diseases and disorders and helping people connect with the resources that may ease their journey. Erica has been a caregiver, and is a patient, herself, so she completely relates to the rare disease community--on a deeply personal level.

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