Narcolepsy’s main symptom is excessive and overwhelming daytime sleepiness, even after adequate nighttime sleep. In addition, nighttime sleep may be fragmented by frequent awakenings. People who have narcolepsy often fall asleep at inappropriate times and places. Although television sitcoms occasionally feature these individuals to generate a few laughs, narcolepsy is no laughing matter. People who have narcolepsy experience daytime “sleep attacks” that last from seconds to more than one-half hour, can occur without warning, and may cause injury. These embarrassing sleep spells can also make it difficult to work and to maintain normal personal or social relationships.
With narcolepsy, the usually sharp distinctions between being asleep and awake are blurred. Also, people who have narcolepsy tend to fall directly into dream-filled REM sleep, rather than enter REM sleep gradually after passing through the non-REM sleep stages first.
In addition to overwhelming daytime sleepiness, narcolepsy has three other commonly associated symptoms, but these may not occur in all people:
Experts estimate that as many as 350,000 Americans have narcolepsy, but fewer than 50,000 are diagnosed. The disorder is as widespread as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, and more prevalent than cystic fibrosis, but it is less well known. Narcolepsy is often mistaken for depression, epilepsy, or the side effects of medicines.
Narcolepsy can be difficult to diagnose in people who have only the symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness. It is usually diagnosed with the aid of an overnight sleep recording (PSG) and the MSLT. (See How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?) Both tests reveal signs of narcolepsy—the tendency to fall asleep rapidly and enter REM sleep early, even during brief naps.
Narcolepsy can develop at any age, but the symptoms tend to appear first during adolescence or early adulthood. About 1 of every 10 people who have narcolepsy has a close family member who has the disorder, suggesting that one can inherit a tendency to develop narcolepsy. Studies suggest that a neurotransmitter called hypocretin plays a key role in narcolepsy. Most people who have narcolepsy lack hypocretin, which promotes wakefulness. Scientists believe that an autoimmune reaction, perhaps triggered by disease or brain injury, specifically destroys the hypocretin-generating cells in the brains of people who have narcolepsy.
Eventually, researchers may develop a treatment for narcolepsy that restores hypocretin to normal levels. In the meantime, most people who have narcolepsy find some to all of their symptoms relieved by various drug treatments. For example, central nervous system stimulants can reduce daytime sleepiness. Antidepressants and other drugs that suppress REM sleep can prevent muscle weakness, sleep paralysis, and vivid dreaming. Doctors also usually recommend that people who have narcolepsy take short naps (10–15 minutes) two or three times a day, if possible, to help control excessive daytime sleepiness.