"Its profoundly debilitating," said Anthony van den Pol, professor of neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine. "For example, narcoleptics may go to work and, despite their best intentions to the contrary, spontaneously fall asleep, raising the ire of their employer. Then at night they may have trouble sleeping, and may suffer from hallucinations when falling asleep or waking."
Van den Pols laboratory, in collaboration with colleagues at Stanford and the Scripps Research Institute, first described the hypothalamic neurotransmitter, hypocretin, in 1998. Later studies showed that patients with narcolepsy did not have any neurons in the brain to make hypocretin. More recently, van den Pol and other researchers also found that hypocretin appears to be linked to pain modulation in the spinal cord.
"Our understanding of the substantial clinical importance of this neurotransmitter within two years of the discovery of hypocretin benefited from a host of basic science discoveries. These discoveries were related to the organization and cellular physiology of the hypocretin system and were made prior to the finding that hypocretin loss leads to narcolepsy," said Van den Pol.
Narcolepsy affects an estimated one in 2,000 Americans, about the same number as those who have Parkinsons Disease. It often shows up in the teen years and is believed to be a lifelong problem. The sleep episodes last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, after which the patient wakes up feeling temporarily refreshed.
Many people who suffer from narcolepsy also have cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone and temporary paralysis evoked by strong emotion, such as laughing. During attacks of cataplexy, which last a few seconds or
Contact: Jacqueline Weaver