Etymology of narcolepsy

Narcolepsy comes from French narcolepsie, which was first used by French physician Jean-Baptiste Edouard Gelineau in 1880. This French word came from a combination of Greek narke, meaning stupor or numbness, and lepsis, meaning a seizure.


Narcolepsy is considered a neurological sleep disorder. It is classified as dyssomnia (opposite of insomnia), and results in uncontrollable sleepiness, where one may find oneself falling asleep at inopportune times, such as at work, or at a family gathering. Narcoleptics oftentimes have trouble sleeping through an entire night, which can be confused with insomnia, as it appears the person cannot fall asleep or stay asleep. A narcoleptic person will experience REM sleep after five minutes of sleeping, while the normal sleep cycle indicates that REM should occur about an hour after a person falls asleep.

Causes and symptoms of narcolepsy

It is important to remember that narcolepsy is neurological and not psychological, which means that the disease is not caused by mental illness of any sort, but rather by genetic abnormalities. One condition associated with narcolepsy was found on Chromosome 6, in an area called the HLA complex. There was a correlation between variations in HLA genes and narcoleptic people, but not every narcoleptic person had the same variation in genes. In 2009, Stanford School of Medicine proved that the variations of the HLA complex increased an autoimmune response to protein-producing neurons found in the brain. Narcoleptic people usually have very reduced levels of hypocretin (orexin) in the brain, which is responsible for controlling sleep patterns and hunger.

Symptoms of narcolepsy mainly include EDS, or excessive daytime sleepiness, even after a full night’s sleep. Three other less constant symptoms are sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations, and cataplexy. Cataplexy involves weakening muscles, from just a bit of weakness to complete collapse. Cataplexic episodes may last anywhere from seconds to minutes and result from an extreme emotional response to an outside factor. Hypnagogic hallucinations are hallucinations that occur as one is falling asleep. Occasionally, narcoleptics also experience automatic behaviors, which means they may act as if they are awake by doing things (like laundry, dishes, etc) but, when they wake up, they do not remember doing any of those activities. Typically, the first and most common symptom of narcolepsy is EDS. Very few people with narcolepsy experience all four symptoms described here.

Treatment of narcolepsy

Narcolepsy cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Many people with narcolepsy undergo months of treatment before finding a plan that fits their needs exactly. Drug treatment therapy typically includes stimulants such as amphetamines in order to keep the body from slipping into REM sleep.

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