Narcolepsy, contrary to popular belief, is not a mental or psychological disorder. It is a neurological disorder in which the person has a tendency to have trouble sleeping at night and hence, feels the need to sleep at random times during the day. These bouts can last for anywhere between a few minutes to even as long as half an hour.
On waking up, the person may or may not recollect that he had fallen asleep. If you think that you too have experienced such unexplained bouts of sleep right in the middle of the day, you would definitely want to read this further to know what exactly causes it and how the symptoms manifest themselves.
Causes of Narcolepsy
The symptoms of narcolepsy can manifest themselves with some very easily distinguishable traits. The most prominent one is lack of or a very disturbed sleep in the night, which results in excess and sudden sleepiness during the daytime.
These bouts of sleep can occur at any time during the day and can happen without any prior warning, even if the activity that the person is engaged in is physically strenuous or stimulating.
The person may also experience hallucinations, sleep paralysis (a condition in which the person cannot move right at the beginning or at the end of sleep), cataplexy (loss in muscle control during sleep), excessive tiredness during the day, and other such symptoms. But what causes narcolepsy? The answer lies here.
Though there is no conclusive evidence to prove it, many scientists believe that narcolepsy is a condition that is brought down by the genes of a person. Apparently, the chromosome 6 gene, Human Leukocyte Antigen or HLA, is responsible for the sleep activation cycle in the brain.
When coupled with other conditions like the ones mentioned further, it could lead to narcolepsy. Remember, genetics alone cannot trigger off narcolepsy. It requires another contributing factor as well.
In our brain, the hypothalamus is the portion that is responsible for the activation and continuation of our sleep and wake cycle. In the hypothalamus, there is a specific protein, called hypocretin. This is responsible for our REM cycle and also to wake us up. It also, to a certain extent, has properties which influence the motor skills of the person.
In narcolepsy patients, it has been observed that the amount of this hypocretin is reduced compared to other people. So, this deficiency of hypocretin can be a reason for the erratic night sleep and hence, random sleepiness during the day.
The deficiency of the hypocretin in the brain, sometimes, could be the result of an autoimmune disease, which could be perceived as narcolepsy. An autoimmune disease is one in which the immune system of the patient cannot differentiate between the bodily proteins and real antigens (foreign substances that attack the immune system).
What happens is, the immune system begins to comprehend the proteins within the body as antigens and hence begins to produce antibodies to protect the body from them. These antibodies attack the cells that are responsible for the production of the hypocretin in the brain, thus resulting in symptoms of narcolepsy.
Sometimes, brain injuries, tumors, strokes, accidents, hormonal changes etc. could lead to infections within the brain. Virus infections too can be found in the brain as a result of a poor immune system. Such infections can lead to the disturbance of the nerve function within the brain and by extension, to narcolepsy.
In addition to the deficiency of hypocretin in the hypothalamus, there are other chemicals in the brain, that could affect the sleep pattern and induce narcolepsy in a person, when their levels are changed.
If the level of histamine (chemical for wakefulness) and adrenaline (epinephrine) go down, then the alertness and arousal of the person are affected. Acetylcholine is a chemical which plays a role in the REM cycle. If its level goes up, it could be a contributing factor to narcolepsy.
Dopamine, associated with transmitting messages to the brain; leptin, decline of which could lead to obesity (most narcoleptics are obese) and the growth hormone; if their levels increase or decrease beyond normal, could lead to narcolepsy, when combined with any of the mentioned conditions.
Those were some of the most prominent causes of narcolepsy that have been identified so far. Though there's no real cure for the condition, there are medications and other forms of treatment that can be used to prevent the occurrence of any potentially dangerous situation.