Unknown is the exact cause of narcolepsy. Narcoleptic patients have low levels of molecular hypocretin (hi-poe-KREE-tin). Hypocretin is a significant neurochemical that helps to regulate waking and REM sleep in your brain.
In those with cataplexy, hypocretin levels are particularly low. It is not known exactly what causes the loss of hypocretin-cell production in the brain, but experts suspect that this is due to an autoimmune reaction.
Genetics would probably play a role in the development of narcolepsy. Nonetheless, the probability that a parent may transfer this condition into a child is very low— only about 1%.
Work also suggests a potential connection with swine flu infection (H1N1 flu) and a certain type of H1N1 vaccine currently used in Europe, even though it is not clear why.
The regular pattern of sleep vs. narcolepsy
The ordinary sleep process starts with a step called non-rapid eye movement (NREM). Your brain waves slow considerably during this process. Your brain activity shifts after about an hour of NREM sleep, and REM sleep starts. Most dreaming takes place during REM sleep.
But, in narcolepsy, you may get into REM sleep unexpectedly without NREM sleep at night or during the day. Many narcoleptic symptoms, such as cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations, are similar to changes occurring in REM sleep but occurring during wakefulness or drowsiness.
Factors of risk
There are only a few recognized narcoleptic risk factors, such as:
- Age. Narcolepsy usually starts between the ages of 10 and 30.
- The history of the family. If you have a family member that has narcolepsy, the chance of narcolepsy is 20 to 40 times higher.
- Public misunderstanding of the condition. Narcolepsy can cause serious professional and personal problems for you. Others may find you to be lazy or lethargic. Your performance at school or at work can suffer.
- Interference with relationships personal. Intense feelings like frustration or joy can activate narcoleptic symptoms such as cataplexy and cause people to withdraw from emotional experiences.
- Physical injury. Sleep attacks can harm people with narcolepsy physically. When you hit while driving, you are at an increased risk of a car accident. If you fall asleep while preparing food, the chance of cuts and burns is greater.
- Obesity. Narcoleptic patients are more likely to be overweight. The increase in weight may be associated with a low metabolism.