What causes narcolepsy?

I've seen people suffer from narcolepsy but the idea of it is so unfamiliar to me. What causes narcolepsy to occur? How does it develop?

Doctors Answers (1)

J. Douglas Hudson, MD, DABSM
Answered on: 11/25/2013

The cause for narcolepsy is felt to be secondary to a loss of a chemical which promotes wakefulness. This chemical was discovered by two research labs about the same time. One of the researchers named it "hypocretin" and the other named it "Orexin". Orexin is secreted by an area of the brain called the "Hypothalamus". If the hypothalamus is injured by infection or trauma, narcolepsy may develop. Therefore, narcolepsy may develop suddenly. It is felt by many scientists that an autoimmune process may destroy the cells which produce Orexin. It cannot be proven that all cases of narcolepsy are secondary to a loss of Orexin. It has been shown, however, that the more classical cases of narcolepsy with the association of cataplexy generally involve reduced levels of Orexin. Due to the multiple symptoms associated with narcolepsy and the variable onset of the disorder (some rapidly and some stepwise), it may take several years for a correct diagnosis to be made. The symptoms of narcolepsy are often related to the intrusion of REM sleep into the wakeful state or occur soon after falling asleep rather than being delayed in the sleep cycle.