Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that has been linked to reduced amounts of a neuropeptide called hypocretin in a specific part of the brain that is important in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. People with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the day despite adequate sleep. These sudden sleep “attacks” may occur during any type of activity and at any time of day.
What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?
Those who suffer from narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms may include episodes of sudden loss of muscle tone or weakness (cataplexy), a temporary inability to move during sleep-wake transitions (sleep paralysis), as well as sleep-related hallucinations and disturbed nighttime sleep.
How is narcolepsy diagnosed?
The diagnosis of narcolepsy is made after performing a detailed medical and sleep history and physical exam. Two sleep lab tests that are usually required include a polysomnogram (PSG) and multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).
A PSG is an overnight study that takes continuous measurements to document sleep cycle abnormalities such as rapid eye movement (REM) disturbances. The MSLT is a daytime test of five short naps that are
scheduled two hours apart, which measures a person’s tendency to fall asleep. The MSLT determines whether isolated elements of REM sleep intrude at inappropriate times during the waking hours.
How is narcolepsy treated?
Treatment is aimed at improving alertness during the desired time of day, based on your needs and lifestyle. It is possible to maximize your quality of sleep by following good sleep habits, including:
• maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
• not staying up late on weekends
• avoiding alcohol and other central nervous system depressants
• modifying work and school schedules
• taking short naps to avoid unintentional sleep attacks
• using moderate amounts of caffeine to stay alert as needed
• operating motor vehicles and heavy equipment with extreme caution and only when approved by your doctor.
Medications are used to treat daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, sleep-related hallucinations and disturbed nocturnal sleep.