As someone who spends a good deal of her time daydreaming, sleeping, and generally just being sleepy, I am fascinated by sleep and sleep disorders. The fact that some people need less sleep than others (e.g., my mom only sleeps five hours a night and is fine the next day) confuses me a little. And the fact that some people (like me) can sleep twelve hours and wake up feeling as though they have just run a marathon. However, what I find the most fascinating is narcolepsy. Why do some people just fall asleep in the middle of an activity? What is it that makes them do that? What do we know about the causes and/or treatments of this? Is it a brain injury? Does this disorder affect the quality of sleep of those suffering from it?
Some rough estimates suggest that one in ever 2,000 Americans suffers from narcolepsy – this would be approximately 135,000 people in the United States (1). It affects both sexes equally, and exists across cultures, although the rates of prevalence differ somewhat (1). Although research is being done on narcolepsy, it is not sure if there is one definitive cause. Genes seem to be related to this – the likelihood of having narcolepsy increases when a close relative suffers from it (1). The gene hypocretin is the one most commonly associated with the disorder. It also seems clear that abnormalities in the part of the brain that regulates the REM cycles of sleep are also related to the disorder. A famous person who had narcolepsy was Harriet Tubman. It was caused by a blow to the head by a two-pound weight from a slave-master when she was twelve (2).
The most well-known symptom of narcolepsy is falling asleep for several seconds or minutes, at random times throughout the day, usually when doing a repetitive or habitual activity (3). Other symptoms include dream-like visual and auditory hallucinations while falling asleep, and cataplexy, which is a momentary muscle weakness that may result in falling over (3). The hallucinations are caused by the fact that people with narcolepsy go into the REM cycle of sleep almost as soon as they fall asleep (4). All of these symptoms are disabling to the person – this disorder, although not diagnosed very often, certainly has an impact on the people who have it. People with narcolepsy are usually given stimulants and antidepressants (SSRI’s and tricyclic antidepressants) to treat their condition. There is no magical cure for this condition – thus far, they have only found a way to treat it.
My question is: Is there a way that narcoleptics can train themselves so as to not be affected by it? Where is the I-function in all of this? Because the person’s will is not being obeyed with this disorder. Is this disorder partly a dysfunction of the I-function? Hopefully this will be answered sometime in the near future.