| Home | Article Database | Resources | Tools & Just for Fun | Search HY |
DESCRIPTION: Narcolepsy is a disabling neurological
disorder of sleep regulation that affects the control of sleep and
wakefulness. It may be described as an intrusion of the dreaming
state of sleep (called REM or rapid eye movement) into the waking
state. Symptoms generally begin between the ages of 15 and 30. The
four classic symptoms of the disorder are excessive daytime
sleepiness; cataplexy (sudden, brief episodes of muscle weakness or
paralysis brought on by strong emotions such as laughter, anger,
surprise or anticipation); sleep paralysis (paralysis upon falling
asleep or waking up); and hypnagogic hallucinations (vivid
dream-like images that occur at sleep onset). Disturbed nighttime
sleep, including tossing and turning in bed, leg jerks, nightmares,
and frequent awakenings, may also occur. The development, number
and severity of symptoms vary widely among individuals with the
disorder. There appears to be an important genetic component to the
disorder as well.
Unrelenting excessive sleepiness is usually the first and most
prominent symptom of narcolepsy. Patients with the disorder
experience irresistible sleep attacks, throughout the day, which
can last for 30 seconds to more than 30 minutes, regardless of the
amount or quality of prior nighttime sleep. These attacks result in
episodes of sleep at work and social events, while eating, talking
and driving, and in other similarly inappropriate occasions.
Although narcolepsy is not a rare disorder, it is often
misdiagnosed or diagnosed only years after symptoms first appear.
Early diagnosis and treatment, however, are important to the
physical and mental well-being of the affected individual.
TREATMENT: There is presently no cure for narcolepsy;
however, the symptoms can be controlled with behavioral and medical
therapy. The excessive daytime sleepiness may be treated with
stimulant drugs, while cataplexy and other REM-sleep symptoms may
be treated with antidepressant medications. At best, medications
will reduce the symptoms, but will not alleviate them entirely.
Also, some medications may have side effects. Basic lifestyle
adjustments such as regulating sleep schedules, improving diet,
increasing exercise and avoiding "over-stimulating" situations may
also help to reduce the effects of excessive daytime sleepiness and
PROGNOSIS: Although narcolepsy is a life-long
condition, most individuals with the disorder enjoy a near-normal
lifestyle with adequate medication and support from teachers,
employers, and families. If not properly diagnosed and treated,
narcolepsy may have a devastating impact on the life of the
affected individual, causing social, psychological, and financial
RESEARCH: The NINDS supports a broad range of
clinical and basic research on sleep disorders including
narcolepsy. NINDS has notified investigators that it is seeking
grant applications in both clinical and basic sleep and wakefulness
research, and has a program announcement specifically addressing
basic and clinical research in narcolepsy.
These articles, available from a medical library, may provide
more in-depth information on narcolepsy:
Mitler, M, Nelson, S, and Hajdukovic, R. "Narcolepsy: Diagnosis,
Treatment, and Management." Psychiatric Clinics of North
America, 10:4; 593-606 (December 1987).
Aldrich, M. "Narcolepsy." Neurology, 42:supplement 6;
34-43 (July 1992).
"Wake up America: A National Sleep Alert, Volume 1. Executive
Summary and Executive Report." Report of the National Commission
on Sleep Disorders Research, DHHS, (January 1993).
Information may also be available from the following
P.O. Box 42460
Cincinnati, OH 45242
National Sleep Foundation
729 15th Street NW, 4th Floor
Washington, DC 20036
Narcolepsy & Sleep Disorders: An International
P.O. Box 51113
Palo Alto, CA 94303-9559
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892