Narcolepsy: Life is short, stay awake for it!
A Brochure

An Outreach Project by Karee JuVette | Return To Outreach Projects 2010

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A Brief History and Definition

  • Narcolepsy is a (currently) incurable chronic sleep disorder most prominently characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden "attacks of sleep"
  • Regardless of circumstances, victims find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time
  • Most unique to narcolepsy, victims suffer from fits of muscle weakness, known as cataplexy
  • Westphal formally stated the first & most compelling descriptions of narcolepsy in 1877
  • Westphal described an abnormal connection between muscle weakness & extreme sleepiness; his reports also suggested a genetic component of disorder
  • In 1880, Gélineau first gave the name narcolepsy, subsequently recognizing it as a specific clinical entity
  • In 1902 Loewenfeld differentiated the muscle weakness episodes as cataplexy
  • Medical research from 1917-1927 led to Von Economo proposing correctly that the posterior hypothalamus was lesioned in human narcolepsy
  • Further work by Yoss & Daly (Mayo Clinic) and Bedrich Roth (Prague, Austria) led to classic description of narcolepsy tetrad
  • Research continues today
  • Symptoms

    Note: most of the following symptoms are note indicative of narcolepsy exclusively
    Excessive Daytime Sleepiness:

  • most universal symptom of narcolepsy
  • uncontrollable need to sleep during day
  • fall asleep without warning, anywhere and any time
  • low alertness throughout day
  • cannot concentrate and function fully

  • +Cataplexy:
  • varying degrees of severity: last few seconds to minutes; slurred speech to complete weakness of most muscles
  • uncontrollable and triggered by intense emotions
  • about 70% of narcolepsy victims experience cataplexy: varying levels of severity: 1 or 2 episodes/year to several each day

  • Sleep Paralysis:
  • experience temporary inability to move/speak while falling asleep or upon waking
  • usually brief episodes, but victim can often recall what happened and is, in fact, aware of the body's paralysis
  • these paralyses mimic those that occur during REM sleep

  • Narcolepsy victims can also experience hypnagogic hallucinations

    Trends and Treatment

    Occurs in all racial and ethnic groups, but rates vary by country:

  • Example countries:
  • US: 1/2,000 affected Israel: 1/500,000 affected Japan (world high): 1/600 affected
  • misunderstand victim as lazy, rude, lethargic, etc., affecting victim's overall performance
  • interference with intimate relationships, especially because cataplexy triggered by intense emotions
  • physical harm
  • -increased risk of car crashes (should not drive alone)
    -affects ability to carry out daily routines
  • drugs prescribed that stimulate the central nervous system, allowing one to stay awake during the day
  • -some drugs have many side effects, new medicine Modafinil (Provigil) better
  • Antidepressants:
  • alleviate: cataplexy, hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis

  • Sodium Oxybate (Xyrem):
  • controls cataplexy, daytime sleepiness; strictly regulated by FDA because serious side effects
  • Causes

    Note: the exact cause of narcolepsy is still unknown; genetics may play a role in the disorder; larger influence may be a trigger, like an infection, leading to damage to certain brain cells
    Normal sleep pattern vs. Narcolepsy:

  • most sleep begins with process known as NREM sleep, during which brain waves slow down considerably
  • narcolepsy victims immediately fall into REM sleep, during which the brain is much more active, effectively bypassing the NREM cycle
  • victims also fall into REM sleep randomly throughout day
  • other aspects of REM sleep (lack muscle tone, sleep paralysis, vivid dreams) occur at other times during sleep or day

  • Brain chemicals:
  • hormone hypocretin (also known as orexin) regulates REM sleep & staying awake throughout day
  • cells that make hypocretin severely damaged in narcolepsy victims; low levels hypocretin in all, lowest in those with cataplexy
  • this lack of hypocretin has led to a diagnostic test: measuring levels of hypocretin in spinal fluid
  • Thank-you for reading this brochure! If you have any questions regarding narcolepsy, please email me at: kareej[at]
    Further information regarding narcolepsy can be found at:
    If you are experiencing any symptoms of a sleep-related disorder, please contact your physician immediately!
    Remember, drowsiness is red alert!

    Where to go from here:

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    Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

    We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

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    Preface | Intro | Contents | Get A Copy

    More Sleep Resources

    The Zeo

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    Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

    Sleep Paralysis Treatment Book

    Ever woken up paralyzed? A surprising number of us have, believe it or not. But few know the actual causes of this phenomenon, and fewer still how to exert control over it. Dream researcher and sleep paralysis expert Ryan Hurd shares breakthrough insights into how to do just that.

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