Falling Asleep on the Job: The Story of Narcolepsy
Have you ever pulled two all nighters in a row? If you have then you know that afterwards, during the day, you drift off to sleep very easily. You feel physically and mentally exhausted and your body tells you that you need to rest. This is a normal reaction by the body to the lack of sleep. This however is something that people suffering from narcolepsy must deal with on a daily basis even when they have had a full nights sleep. One of the major symptoms they suffer from is overwhelming daytime sleepiness.
Imagine you are in a boring lecture and you start to drift to sleep, usually you can manage to force yourself to wake up. This may be common occurrence but try to imagine falling asleep while driving or walking. These situations seem more rare. A narcoleptic’s body doesn’t care what it is doing when it goes into these paralyzed sleeping episodes. The sudden overwhelming feeling drives the narcoleptic person to fall asleep. One type of episode that they experience is called cataplexy, which is usually caused by some stressful situation or other common activities such as laughing or running (6). During these periods the person suffers from muscle weakness and paralysis. Although the person appears to be sleeping, they are still conscious, but unable to move. They can hear and feel but cannot react to stimulation. For this reason narcolepsy is a very dangerous condition to have without receiving treatment because serious vehicle accidents can result as well as an general inability to succeed in school (6).
Another major symptom that affects narcoleptics is called hypnagogic hallucinations, which they experience when they are falling asleep. These hallucinations can include vivid images accompanied by sounds which are often frightening to the person. This symptom can be experienced by non-narcoleptics, but it is so common in narcoleptics that they don’t know if what they experienced was a dream or if they actually experienced the situation (10). A related symptom is called automatic behavior, which is when the person will not remember doing familiar or boring tasks after they have been done.
Although narcolepsy is a very common disorder, affecting between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 2000 people in the United States, there is still no cure and the only medications available mask some of the symptoms, but they are only effective for a short time (6). Though their is no cure, scientists have been trying to solve this problem since the ‘discovery’ of the disease 120 years ago. At this point they have a few possible areas that they are studying which have been connected to the disease. The suggestions that have been made so far are causes such as neuronal degeneration, a genetic mutation or an autoimmune disease (6). These possible causes are varied and have been proven to cause narcolepsy in other animals, but not humans specifically.
Neuronal and axonal degeneration has been seen in...