Narcolepsy is, at this time, an incurable neurological disorder that affects sleep patterns. Most hearing the term assume that the biggest challenge with this condition is falling asleep constantly. Actually, most people with it may doze off for very brief periods of the day, but their major concerns are vivid hallucinations upon waking, as well as vivid dreaming while asleep, and cataplexy, a condition where voluntary muscles suddenly cannot be controlled.
Cataplexy causes temporary paralysis, which can be particularly disturbing if one wakes from a distressing dream. Some medications are available to help treat cataplexy. These are tricyclic anti-depressants and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Tricyclics include medications like protritpyline, and SSRIs are often recognized by their brand names of Prozac® or Zoloft®.
Most of the time however, those with narcolepsy feel persistently sleepy, and usually find that their sleep quality at night is poorer. Avoiding caffeine can help with nighttime sleep, but still a lack of alertness exists during the day. Many address the condition by taking short naps during the day, usually when they are sleepiest. Often, feelings of sleepiness occur at regular dependable intervals, and short naps can prevent dozing off.
People with narcolepsy who fall asleep, only tend to stay asleep for a few minutes at a time. However, a few may sleep for up to an hour. This makes it challenging for all affected, because it is difficult to perform work when one falls asleep with regularity. As well, many narcoleptic people cannot drive since this is considered dangerous for themselves and others.
Narcolepsy most commonly has an onset in those between 10-20 years old. The condition may take a long time, however, to diagnose. It has an occurrence rate of approximately .025% in those living in the US. Diagnosis is usually made by studying evidence of sleepiness and cataplexy. Additional sleep studies may be performed during the day to evaluate the presence of narcolepsy. Even with such studies, diagnosis is not usually definitive. Over time, as sleep episodes occur with frequency, diagnosis is usually made on this evidence. Some evidence suggests that this condition may abate somewhat as people age.
Scientists believe they have identified the gene responsible for narcolepsy in mice and dogs. It is hoped that this study will help identify the gene in humans and direct efforts toward possible gene therapy as a cure. Studies in mice and dogs may point the way to evolving a cure for humans.