The 6th European Narcolepsy Day was celebrated on the 18th of March by the European Narcolepsy Network. The German city Münster was this year’s host, bringing together dozens of European experts in scientific debates and interventions about this sleep disorder. Work sessions started on 14th March.
The person who suddenly and irresistibly falls asleep anywhere, at the movie theatre, in a work or family meeting, to the point of compromising his or her professional, social and affective life because situations keep repeating may very well suffer from narcolepsy.
There are truly dramatic cases in which the patient has a profession that requires him/her to be awake. We are talking about professional drivers, for instance, or people whose job is to remain watchful, ending up putting their lives or others’ at stake.
The diagnosis of narcolepsy is sometimes difficult and can be confused with other conditions. Adding this to the sudden falling asleep, patients with narcolepsy have it rather difficult.
The most distressing fact is that the person abruptly falls asleep during wake hours and has problems falling asleep at night, which may be confused with insomnia or with fragmented sleep, as in other sleep disorders.
Narcolepsy is characterized by irresistible bursts of refreshing sleep and cataplexy (i. e. short episodes of sudden muscle tone loss, mostly related with intense emotion). The patient’s sleepiness decreases after a sleep episode, but it returns after a few hours. Sleep episodes generally last between 10 and 20 minutes, but they can last up to one hour if not interrupted.
The condition affects 20 to 40 people in 100.000, depending on ethnical origin. It is caused by deficient neurotransmitter orexin which, in turn, is caused by the loss of a neuronal group in the hypothalamus. The reason why these neurons get lost is not yet known.
Narcolepsy can come up at any age, but it is more frequent in the age group of 15 to 36. Research findings suggest a strong influence of genetic background in the development of the disease. Approximately 5 to 15 percent of first-degree relatives of narcoleptic patients share the same condition. About 25 to 50 percent of biological first-degree relatives of narcoleptic patients have other disorders characterized by excessive sleepiness, such as primary insomnia.