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Narcolepsy

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Have you ever watched Moulin Rouge? Remember the Argentinean who always fell asleep at the most awkward times? He was a victim of narcolepsy. That portrayal of narcolepsy was exaggerated, though in essence correct. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that is best known for Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). A person who is narcoleptic will often have disturbed sleep during the night, not exactly insomnia but close enough and he or she will have REM or rapid eye movement during sleep. And of course, narcoleptics will fall asleep at any random time. A narcoleptic can remain drowsy the whole day even after a good night’s sleep, or he can fall asleep for short periods of time throughout the day and have a bad time sleeping at night.

NARCOLEPSY SYMPTOMS

But narcolepsy isn’t all about sleeping; there are other symptoms of narcolepsy that include sleep paralysis, automatic behavior, hallucinations and cataplexy. Cataplexy means that you loose all of the strength in your muscles. It can range from just a little limp weakness to a full body collapse. Cataplexy is triggered by emotions like extreme anger or even laughter. The person is conscious throughout the episode just unable to move. Hallucinations are vivid dreams that occur when asleep or sometimes even when awake. Automatic behavior is when a narcoleptic is asleep but talks, moves, acts and then has no memory of what he has done when he wakes up. Sleep paralysis is when a person temporarily looses the ability to talk or move when he or she is awake. It is a bit frightening but it usually lasts for a few minutes only. Of all these symptoms only cataplexy is unique to narcolepsy, the other symptoms can be seen when people are sleep deprived in some way. And apart form there strange symptoms, people with narcolepsy (at least 35%) suffer from insomnia because although they fall asleep often, their sleep is not restful.
Narcolepsy
Image: Narcolepsy


In most cases of narcolepsy not all four symptoms are present, only around 23% of all narcoleptics experience all four symptoms. Most experience daytime grogginess for all their lives, but hallucinations and sleep paralysis might go away. Narcolepsy first manifests itself in EDS and then the other symptoms come out through the course of the years. There is a wide range of the severity of the symptoms depending on each patient.

NARCOLEPSY DIAGNOSIS

Narcoleptics are a special and strange case because the natural pattern of sleeping and dreaming is disturbed. Ordinarily a person has to sleep lightly first and then fall into a deep sleep where REM sleep occurs (REM sleep is a deep sleep where we most remember our dreams). For narcoleptics, REM sleep occurs at abnormal and inopportune times. And all the characteristics of REM sleep, like sleep paralysis and vivid dreaming occur at abnormal times too. So the narcoleptics can fall immediately in a deep sleep without having to pass through a dozing period. This can happen at nay time during the day.

NARCOLEPSY CAUSES

No one really knows the cause of narcolepsy. Some scientists believe that it is a genetic conditions, some research has been done suggesting it might have something to do with a person’s chromosome mutation. However, there has been no conclusive information. Other scientists believe that it has something to do with a certain protein that is produced by the brain, this protein affects a person’s sleep patterns to it might be possible.

Scientists have been able to discover that narcolepsy is typically manifested in young adulthood and adolescence. However, it is hard to diagnose because the symptoms might not all be there at once. Sometimes just the Excessive Daytime Sleepiness might be there and the patient would just be diagnosed as an insomniac of some sort.


If only one or two symptoms are seen in the patient then doctors might have a hard time diagnosing the patient as narcoleptic. There are two tests that help doctors diagnose patients with narcolepsy. One is the polysomnogram which records a persons brain waves during sleep. The other is a multiple sleep latency test, where doctors observe your sleep patterns.

NARCOLEPSY TREATMENT

Treatment for this disease is still limited and still being experimented with. There is some form of sleep therapy and some drugs that are being studied, but no concrete cure yet. Some treatments that are being tested now are sleep therapy, or forcing narcoleptics into a consistent sleep cycle and a variety of drugs. There have been experiments with stimulants and anti-depressants as well as the drug Xylem. Cataplexy is treated with the anti-depressants while the daytime sleepiness can be controlled with stimulants. Xylem is Sodium Oxybate; it controls the cataplexy and the daytime sleepiness but it has bad side effects like vomiting, dizziness and being unable to control your urine. Doctors also urge narcoleptics to take lots of sort naps throughout the day, especially before working or driving. While there is no cure for narcolepsy there are ways to make it manageable. With the help of family and friends most narcoleptics lead a pretty normal life.
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