The first and foremost question that crops up while going through this topic is what is Narcolepsy? In short, Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that causes extreme weakness of body muscles resulting in sleepiness throughout the odd hours of the day-even in the midst of a hectic work.
The specialty of this particular decease is that it has nothing to do with any psychological problem and hence, it’s seen that the patient’s social awareness and their ability to respond – as well as their auditory capacity – remain more or less unaffected.
Mild Narcolepsy Symptoms
The primary way to identify a Narcolepsy patient is through the occurrence of Cataplexy, which is a sudden muscle fatigue resulting in strong emotional outburst. Though there are exceptions, it is generally true that up to 70% of Narcolepsy patients also suffer from Cataplexy.
Apart from Cataplexy, the main characteristic of a Narcolepsy patient is falling asleep or feeling drowsy all through the day, even after a sound sleep in the night.
It’s quite common that a patient with Narcolepsy falls asleep in trains and buses, thereby missing the stops. They often fall asleep even while driving their cars, resulting in fatal accidents. There have been instances when a patient has fallen asleep in a dentist’s chamber and have to be shaken awake by the dentist. The more these things occur, the more the patient goes into a social cocoon, withdrawing themselves from the social activities and hence needing immediate medical attention.
This phenomenon is regarded as Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). Almost 90% of the Narcolepsy patients suffer from this disorder. Other common symptoms are hypnagogic hallucinations. Almost 30% of patients are recorded to suffer from this particular symptom. This particular symptom is attributed to certain dreamy visions those a patient witnesses at the moment of falling asleep. Though one school of thought tends to give certain super-natural angles to this phenomenon, extensive research has shown the exact reason behind this is othing more than a hypnagogic hallucination.
Narcolepsy sufferers also often complain of acute disturbance of sleep during night; some secondary symptoms such as blurred or double vision and dropping eyelids are also very common. Another very common symptom, present in almost 25% of Narcolepsy cases is a condition called Sleep Paralysis. A patient with this particular symptom cannot talk or even move when they are falling asleep or awaking from sleep. This may last anywhere from few seconds to as many as several minutes.
Though in general, Narcolepsy patients have sound sleep at night, there have been certain cases, where a patient has prolonged period of sleeplessness during night, with increased heart rate, occurrence of hot flashes and at certain instances acute alertness for hardly any reason. It’s also often seen that the Narcolepsy patients fall asleep faster than normal, and may get up after hearing an almost inaudible noise.
While a normal person takes about one and a half hour of sleep on an average to see dreams, a Narcolepsy patient can see dreams instantly. As a result of this Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is also a unique feature of a Narcolepsy patient during sleep. At times this REM can be extremely rapid and abnormal.
The most important phenomenon about Narcolepsy is that except for daytime sleepiness, the other symptoms do not affect the patient to a large extent. Hence, those patients who do not have daytime sleepiness may not seek much medical help, thus hindering a conclusive diagnosis.
It can be mentioned that the symptoms of Narcolepsy may remain hidden for many years. In fact, there are cases where Narcolepsy has been diagnosed after as many as ten years of suffering from the symptoms of the condition. Almost 50% of the adult Narcolepsy patients coming for diagnosis have recorded to have been affected by the disease between 15 and 30 years of age.
In spite of extensive research being conducted all over the world, the exact cause of this particular disease is yet to be recognized. One school of thought claims that Narcolepsy is related to a genetic disorder that exists in the history of a family. It’s believed that up to 10% of all Narcolepsy patients had someone else in their families with the condition.
Another school of thought states that Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease. In these cases, the immune system of the human body produces cytokines more that what is needed for the human body. This affects the immunity system of the body resulting in a series of disorders of various kinds. In this train of thought, researchers believe that the Narcolepsy condition itself may attack those cells which contain brain peptide hypocretin (orexin). This results in certain deficiencies those are the major factors responsible for this disease.
One striking phenomenon that is generally noticed in patients with Narcolepsy is that they contain very low levels of Hypocretin in their body. Though we do not know what exactly causes the damage of the Hypocretin cells, it may be the result of an infection.
Some say that the exact reason of this disease can be a particular type of infection that affects the genetic order. Certain hormonal changes at different stages of life, the environment of the patient, the stress of day-to-day life can also be responsible. A recent study has come out with startling results, though. Almost all the patients of Narcolepsy are recorded to carry HLA-DR15 and HLA-DQ6 gene. Hence, it can be said these gene are more susceptible to Narcolepsy than the others. With research in genetics reaching newer heights and gene mapping already in vogue, we can expect the disease to be eradicated sooner than later.