Neuroscientists Find Possible Biological Cause of Narcolepsy

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narcolepsy proteinA team of neuroscientists at UCLA’s Center for Sleep Research has made a discovery that could signal a major find in the search for a cause and eventual cure for narcolepsy. Characterized by random, uncontrollable periods of deep sleep, the disorder has baffled the neuroscience community for years, and affects roughly one in every 3,000 Americans.

The first breakthrough came in the year 2000, when UCLA neuroscientists discovered that people suffering from narcolepsy have a major difference in their neuronal makeup. Narcoleptics have, on average, 85-90% fewer neurons that contain hypocretin – an essential neuropeptide that boosts mood and alertness, and helps keep us awake. It’s this lack of hypocretin that accounts for the sleepiness that gives narcolepsy its characteristic sleepiness.

But until recently, the neuroscience community had no idea what was responsible for killing off the hypocretin cells in the first place. Researchers cite that an excess of a different type of brain cell (one that contains histamine) very possibly could be causing the death of hypocretin cells in humans with narcolepsy.

Histamine is likely to sound familiar to those who suffer from seasonal or animal allergies, since it acts on a person’s eyes, nose, lungs and skin, causing the familiar symptoms of things like hayfever and outdoor allergies. But histamine is also present in certain types of brain cells. And it’s this excessive amount of histamine, according to neurologists and scientists, that’s causing the death of hypocretin cells in narcoleptic patients.

Further study of histamine, hypocretin cells, and neurogenisis will hold the key to taking the first steps toward curing narcolepsy.

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