Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in which individuals experience excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden, uncontrollable sleep attacks. A sleep attack may occur at any time during the day, during any type of activity, and it simply causes the individual to fall asleep. The exact cause of narcolepsy is not known and it is believed that multiple factors may be involved.
Individuals with narcolepsy may experience excessive daytime sleepiness (which may include memory lapses, poor concentration, fatigue and a depressed mood), cataplexy or sudden loss of muscle tone (which may lead to slurred speech or total body collapse), hallucinations, and sleep paralysis.
Diagnosing narcolepsy typically involves a physical exam and thorough medical history as well as specialized tests performed in a sleep lab, including the polysomnogram (PSG) and multiple sleep latency test (MSLT). The PSG is performed at night while the patient sleeps and it continuously measures and documents abnormalities in the sleep cycle. The MSLT is a daytime test, which measures the patient’s tendency to fall asleep. While there is no cure for narcolepsy, drug treatment can control the most disabling symptoms of the condition. Amphetamine-like stimulants can treat excessive daytime sleepiness while antidepressant drugs can treat cataplexy and other symptoms of abnormal REM sleep. In addition, a new and promising medication called Xyrem has recently been approved for individuals suffering from narcolepsy with cataplexy. Individuals may also find it beneficial to make lifestyle changes such as limiting caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and heavy meals. Narcoleptics are also encouraged to take daytime naps and establish routine exercise and meal schedules.