Scientists tackle nightmare sleeping disorder

Narcolepsy can cause severe daytime sleepiness, paralysis and muscular limpness.

Swiss scientists are trying to find a cure for narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder that can have a serious psychological impact on sufferers.

This content was published on August 3, 2003 - 12:09

The effects of narcolepsy range from severe daytime sleepiness to paralysis and muscular limpness.

Research suggests that the impairments brought about by the disorder can be as serious as those caused by epilepsy.

Medicines are already available which can treat the symptoms of narcolepsy in most sufferers.

But Professor Claudio Bassetti from the neurology clinic at Zurich University Hospital says that while these treatments are generally effective, doctors often fail to diagnose the disorder in their patients.

“A good proportion of sufferers lead their lives without being diagnosed, and therefore don’t get the proper treatment,” he told swissinfo.

But many sufferers have been diagnosed. In Switzerland alone, between 5,000 and 10,000 people are narcoleptic, while one in 2,000 people in the world suffers from the disorder.

Search for a cure

The Zurich team is working with colleagues around the world to discover a treatment that could completely cure narcolepsy.

In order to do so, the researchers need to determine what causes the disorder. They have already pinpointed a specific gene type, called HLA, which is present in 95 per cent of all narcolepsy sufferers.

Scientists believe narcoleptic attacks are triggered by an external environmental factor which so far remains undetected.

Research has also shown that certain races can be more susceptible to narcolepsy than others. For instance, Japanese people are more likely to suffer from the disorder than Jewish people.

Four symptoms

Doctors have already identified four separate symptoms of the disorder: excessive daytime sleepiness, sudden muscular limpness, paralysis when falling asleep or waking, and hallucinations.

Daytime sleepiness is often misunderstood by others as simply a case of extreme laziness, but Bassetti insists narcolepsy is no laughing matter.

“When you have to fight against falling asleep every day, when you have to fight against cataplexy [muscular limpness] in front of others, when you have sometimes terrifying paralysis or hallucinations, this is not something to be laughed at,” he said.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh and Joanne Shields

In brief

Narcolepsy symptoms in full:

excessive daytime sleepiness, which can often be misunderstood because it can be confused with other, more day-to-day causes, such as a simple lack of sleep;

cataplexy, which is an episode of muscular limpness. This often manifests itself as a sudden weakness of the knees, sagging of the jaw or even total collapse, and is connected to certain emotions, such as laughter or depression;

sleep paralysis, whereby sufferers are unable to move although they are still awake. This occurs when someone is either falling asleep or waking up;

the sufferer can experience hallucinations during waking or falling asleep, which can have a serious psychological effect.

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