We’re Taking the First Steps Toward a Cure for Narcolepsy
In an organ of up to 100 billion cells, this might not sound like too much to worry about. But these are no ordinary cells. They are found in the hypothalamus, a small, evolutionarily ancient and unbelievably important structure that helps regulate many of the body’s basic operations, including the daily see-saw between wakefulness and sleep. The cells in question are also the only ones in the brain that express the orexins (also known as hypocretins). This pair of related peptides–short chains of amino acids–were completely unknown at the time of my diagnosis in 1995.
The story of their discovery, beginning in the 1970s, is a brilliant tale of chance and luck, imagination and foresight, risk and rivalry, and involves a colony of narcoleptic Doberman pinschers to boot. It might even be the perfect illustration of how science works.
Yet while there are drugs that can help manage the worst of the symptoms of narcolepsy, none of these comes close to repairing the underlying brain damage. It is remarkable that a lack of two chemicals results in such a bewildering constellation of symptoms. The answer to my problems appears to be simple—I just need to get the orexins (or something similar) back inside my brain. So why am I still waiting?
When vets at the University of Saskatchewan observed Monique, they suspected these were bouts of cataplexy, and hence figured this might be a case of narcolepsy with accompanying cataplexy. As luck would have it, Monique’s diagnosis coincided with the arrival of a peculiar circular from William Dement, a sleep specialist at Stanford University in California. He was on the lookout for narcoleptic dogs. The Saskatchewan vets wrote back to him immediately. With Monique’s owners persuaded to relinquish their pet, all that was needed was to figure out a way to get her to California.
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