Narcolepsy Brain

Brain research is key to discovering the causes of narcolepsy

Narcolepsy brain research offers helpful insight into this mysterious condition. Though the causes of narcolepsy are unknown, research has uncovered other valuable information about the condition. While the condition may be quite rare, it affects many. Famous people with narcolepsy may bring more attention to the condition, including brain research.

Narcolepsy Brain Research

Since the sleep disorder is neurological in nature, the brain is the primary focus of research. Individuals who have this condition experience sudden lapses into the REM cycle of sleep without warning. There seems to be no triggers that cause a narcoleptic episode to occur. Narcolepsy brain research seeks to discover possible causes and cures for the sleep disorder.

Genetic Findings

The National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke suggests that a number of factors contribute to narcolepsy and its symptoms, since it is a neurological disease. Genes play a significant role in the condition:

  • The HLA complex is a region on chromosome 6 that correlate with other genes to regulate certain aspects of the immune system. Findings show that people who have alleles (variant forms of the genes) are predisposed to having narcolepsy. However, the variants alone are not enough to cause the condition. Most individuals who have this sleep problem have HLA gene variants but some do not. People can have the variants without having narcolepsy.
  • Chromosome 12 disfunction may interfere with neurotransmitters produced in the hypothalamus. The neurotransmitters are called "orexins" or "hypocretins". They are active while the individual is awake. Some researchers believe that their function to keep the brain from lulling into sleep states.

Hypocretin and HLA

In order to understand developments in narcolepsy brain research, it helps to understand hypocretin and HLA, as well as how they may possibly contribute to the sleep disorder.

Hypocretin or Orexin

The scientific community uses hypocretin and orexin as interchangeable terms. Stanford School of Medicine's Center for Narcolepsy provides details about the neurons:

  • They are located deep in the hypothalamus.
  • Relatively few cells secrete orexin molecules.
  • The molecules are exclusive to the hypothalamus.
  • They are associated with a sub-region of hypothalamus responsible for feeding regulation.

People can have their hypocretin levels measured using a procedure that is similar to an epidural that samples cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). There are no blood or urine tests for this measurement because the molecules are believed to exist exclusively in the brain and spinal fluid near the cerebral region.


Human leukocyte antigens (HLA) are molecules that function to keep the body's immune system working properly. The molecules are complex, with different subtypes for different individuals; the differences make each person's immune system unique, but very slightly. Mutations in HLA can lead to autoimmune problems.

The occurrence of mutations in the hypocretin gene (chromosome 12) is rare in humans but many narcoleptic brains have fewer neurons that produce hypocretin. Theory suggests that HLA malfunctions can lead the immune system to attach neurons that produce hypocretin.

HLA testing is not used to diagnose narcolepsy because the variants can be present in individuals who do not have the condition. Human leukocyte antigens may make some people susceptible to narcolepsy, but it is not a reliable indicator in all cases.

Narcolepsy in Animals

Narcolepsy brain research does not apply exclusively to humans. The Society for Neuroscience outlines fascinating information about research, including narcolepsy in animals.

The Society for Neuroscience states that the interest developed during the 1970s. Researchers discovered that Doberman pinschers can be narcoleptic, making them a focus of study. Some narcoleptic dogs would suddenly fall asleep for no reason, or exhibit cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone.

Other Factors

Not all narcoleptic individuals have irregularities in HLA or low levels of hypocretin. Other issues can have a bearing on the sleep disorder. Some conditions that can contribute to narcolepsy brain problems include:

  • Infection
  • Tumor
  • Injury
  • Disease
  • Hormones
  • Toxins
  • Diet
  • Stress

While these factors may not cause the condition, they can play a significant part in the development of the sleep disorder. The environment may have an influence as well.

Environmental Factors

Will Longstreth Jr., MD, MPH suggests that a combination of environmental factors and genetic predisposition can lead to the onset of the sleep disorder. Science Daily offers a summary of Longstreth's narcolepsy brain and environmental theories.

Research to determine the possible causes and the best treatments for narcolepsy is still in its early stages. Sleep offers information about various sleep problems including findings on this mystifying neurological condition.

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