An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder. It is not caused by mental illness or psychological problems. It is most likely the end result of a number of genetic abnormalities that affect specific biologic factors in the brain, coupled with an environmental trigger such as a virus.
Researchers are attempting to come up with a unifying theory involving genetic factors, autoimmunity, and deficiencies in hypocretin, a brain peptide that is important in regulating sleep, particularly REM sleep.
Hypocretin. Hypocretin (also called orexin) is a peptide (small protein) that modulates activity in the hypothalamus (the region in the brain associated with sleep, well-being, and appetite). Hypocretin specifically has properties that promote wakefulness and inhibits REM sleep. Hypocretin may also have other actions that affect feeding behavior and increase activity in the autonomic (sympathetic) nervous system and systems that regulate motor control. Deficiencies in this peptide have been observed in most patients with narcolepsy who also have cataplexy.
Recent autopsy studies have shown a reduced amount of hyprocretin mRNA and hypocretin-positive neurons in patients with narcolepsy with cataplexy. Researchers have postulated that some type of immune response may affect these hypocretin cells.
Deficiencies might set off the following chemical responses that may produce sleep attacks:
Narcolepsy has a genetic component and tends to run in families. Experts estimate that around 8 - 10% of people with narcolepsy have a close relative who has the disorder. The risk for narcolepsy among first-degree relatives (parents or sibling) is 1 - 2%.
However, most experts agree that 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-DR15 and HLA-DQ6 gene.
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.)
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 syndrome of symptoms that include cataplexy and periodic limb movement disorder. However, roughly 20% of people without narcolepsy carry these HLA types.
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