What Causes Narcolepsy?

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  • Recent studies have determined that narcolepsy may be caused by an inadequate amount of hypocretin in the body
  • While the primary cause of narcolepsy is still unknown, research has determined various stimuli may play a role in the onset of this condition

The clear cause of narcolepsy has not yet been determined by researchers. However, recent studies indicate  it may be caused by an inadequate amount of hypocretin in the body. This has also been linked to brain injuries and autoimmunity.

The Brain’s Role in Narcolepsy

Researchers have determined that narcolepsy is caused by an imbalance in the hypocretin levels in the brain, a neuropeptide responsible for the regulation of alertness, appetite and wellbeing. This is only produced by a limited amount of neurons in the hypothalamus. Destruction of these neurons can directly lead to the dysregulation of sleep.1

The lack of this peptide can lead to other chemical imbalances in the brain, which can aggravate other symptoms of narcolepsy. These chemical imbalances include the decrease in epinephrine, histamine and leptin. Epinephrine, or adrenaline, is responsible for alertness and arousal, while histamine promotes wakefulness. Meanwhile, leptin is responsible for the regulation of metabolism and weight. The levels of monoamine oxidase, acetylcholine and dopamine have also been observed to undergo drastic changes.2

What Are the Possible Triggers for Narcolepsy?

While the primary cause of narcolepsy is still unknown, research has determined various stimuli that may play a role in the onset of this condition. Some of the possible external factors that influence the development and the severity of narcolepsy include the following:

Autoimmunity. One of the possible causes of narcolepsy is autoimmunity, wherein the immune system unknowingly starts attacking your hypocretin neurons. The reason for this is still unknown.3

Genetics. Hereditary factors have been observed to have an effect on the development of narcolepsy across families, albeit limited. While individuals with narcoleptic relatives have a higher chance of developing this sleep disorder, there has to be an external factor that will trigger narcolepsy symptoms.4

Physical trauma. Some cases of narcolepsy have been determined as a posttraumatic condition. One study claims that asymptomatic patients may have a dormant case of narcolepsy, which can be triggered by mild to moderate head injuries.5

Multiple sclerosis (MS). This disease is often accompanied by various sleep disorders, which include narcolepsy. In fact, multiple sclerosis was ranked as the fourth most common cause for narcolepsy, behind brain injury, genetics and brain tumors. One theory as to why there is a link between these two conditions is that MS can cause lesions in the region of the brain that contains the hypocretin neurons.6

Infections. There are accounts that show narcolepsy can be triggered by infections, such as the swine flu and Streptococcal bacteria. Studies also point to the antigen that causes the H1N1 flu after patients infected by the flu or patients who were administered with the vaccine developed narcolepsy.7

Pandemrix. In 2010, a rise in narcolepsy patients in Europe was linked to the administration of Pandemrix, an influenza vaccine. More than 1,300 people developed narcolepsy as a direct result of this vaccine, which caused an autoimmune response.8

MORE ABOUT NARCOLEPSY

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Narcolepsy Causes

Narcolepsy Test

Narcolepsy Treatment

Narcolepsy Prevention

Narcolepsy Diet

Narcolepsy FAQ

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