Narcolepsy May Be Caused by the Immune System Attacking Brain Cells

By Eliza Strickland | May 5, 2009 4:40 pm

sleep narcolepsyResearchers have found good evidence that the troubling sleep disorder narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease, in which the body’s own immune system attacks healthy brain cells. A new study published in Nature Genetics links narcolepsy to mutations of two genes involved in critical roles in protecting the body from disease. These two variations, they say, are likely conspirators against [cells that produce] hypocretin, a hormone that promotes wakefulness, and that narcoleptics have been found to lack [HealthDay News].

Narcolepsy is a disruptive disorder that can trigger “sleep attacks” without any warning during any normal activity. In addition, some people can experience “cataplexy”, where strong emotions such as anger, surprise, or laughter can trigger an instant loss of muscle strength, which, in some cases, can cause collapse [BBC News]. There is currently no cure for narcolepsy, although the symptoms can be largely controlled with a mix of stimulants and sleep-suppressing medications.

Researchers have known for years that narcoleptics are more likely to have a particular version of genes called HLA that make key immune system proteins. These proteins present small bits of invading microbes to [immune cells called] T cells, much like a handler waves a sweat-laden sock in front of a bloodhound. The proteins thus help T cells identify, track down and kill the foreign cells. In autoimmune disease, T cells may run amok, mistakenly attacking the body’s own, healthy cells [Science News]. The new study added to this knowledge by analyzing DNA from nearly 4,000 participants, all of whom had the HLA variant, but only half of whom had narcolepsy.

Lead researcher Emmanuel Mignot found that the narcoleptics in the study also had a certain variant of a gene that tells T cells–the immune cells that destroy intruders–how to react to the pathogens that HLA molecules bring them. The result indicates that T cells and HLA, which together regulate much of the body’s immune response, gang up in a unique way to destroy narcoleptics’ hypocretin cells…. The study doesn’t explain why T cells target the hypocretin cells specifically, says Mignot. It also sheds no light on what triggers the attack in the first place, a mystery for most autoimmune diseases. “We don’t know why bodies go haywire and start attacking themselves,” he says. But Mignot hopes future studies will reveal the culprit [ScienceNOW Daily News].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: What Breaks Down the Asleep/Awake Divide?
DISCOVER: Let Sleeping Dogs Arise examines what we can learn from narcoleptic pooches
DISCOVER: Date-Rape Drug to the Rescue! The infamous drug GHB helps one narcoleptic patient

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • FILTHpig

    This article really makes me slee… zzz.

  • leah

    What “triggers the attack in the first place”? With *all* these autoimmune disorders, what triggers the attack on one’s own body has to be a pathogen invader. Read Paul Ewald.

    There is nothing “wrong” with these people’s HLA system nor anything wrong with their variants–if there were, these would be pruned out of the genome.

    Pathogens. Probably viral.

  • April

    Leah – i’m coming at this from my perspective as a person with Celiac disease who also has ‘narc attacks’ after eating gluten-containing foods. Getting diagnosed with Celiac is what helped me not have to sleep after every meal. There seem to be a lot of narcoleptics in the gluten-intolerant community. I seem to recall someone saying there are some genes in common, but that one may not necessarily cause the other.

    I have several symptoms of narcolepsy – automatic behavior, sleep paralysis, etc. – but my worst symptoms have resolved on a gluten-free diet.

    In the Celiac (most have HLA-DQ2), their bodies present gluten to the immune system for a response (unlike people without HLA-DQ2). So perhaps with some narcoleptics, the ‘pathogen’ can be gluten.

  • Jackie

    WOW……first Celiac disease is the oldest and most common disease in Europe, one in 200 have it, all infants in Italy and Ireland are tested, even without symptoms you can have “failure to thrive” syndrome. Note that this is not gluten-sensitive or an allergy, many suffer hives or other “allergy” symptoms, these are two different conditions. Celiac is a long documented disease, in the US, we just started testing for it, as Crohns or IBS have similar symptoms and symptoms are often brought on by stress. Celiac results in damage that is documented by an endoscopy, and a simple blood test that has three markers. If you have two of three, you are a likely candidate. 3 of 3 and you’ve been diagnosed. It’s hereditary much like color-blindness or skin color, so is an pathogen invader necessary?

    Second, my sister and are celiacs, AND we have a life long history of sleep paralysis, carrying on conversations while sleeping, and people have joked for years about us being narcoleptic——-just falling down asleep when “too tired” or stressed. Very interesting connecting the two items. Thanks!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar