Clinical aspects and pathophysiology of narcolepsy

Clin Neurophysiol. 2003 Nov;114(11):2000-17. doi: 10.1016/s1388-2457(03)00203-7.


Narcolepsy is a chronic debilitating sleep disorder first described in the late 19th century. It is characterized by two major symptoms, excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy, and two so-called auxiliary symptoms, hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis. The final diagnosis relies on polysomnography showing the presence of sleep onset rapid eye movement periods (SOREMPs) during the multiple sleep latency test. The presence of HLA DQA1*0102-DQB1*0602 is supportive of the diagnosis. The pathophysiology of the disorder is still unknown but an imbalance between monoamines and acetylcholine is generally accepted. Recent findings in narcoleptic dogs, a natural model of narcolepsy, and in knockout mice revealed that a mutation of type 2 hypocretin receptor plays a major role in the etiology of narcolepsy. Up to now, no mutation has been found in humans except a case of early onset and atypical narcolepsy. However, a marked reduction of hypocretin type 1 has been found in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of a majority of patients and a global loss of hypocretins was noted in post-mortem brain tissue of narcoleptic subjects. Conversely, no hypocretin neuron degeneration has been observed in the genetic form of narcolepsy in dogs but no trace of hypocretin was seen in the brain or the CSF in cases of sporadic canine narcolepsy. This suggests that different hypocretinergic mechanisms are involved in sporadic and genetic forms of canine narcolepsy. Treatment has not evolved significantly over the last few years. However, new drugs, such as hypocretin agonists, are currently being developed.

Significance: After the discovery of the type 2 hypocretin receptor mutation in canine narcolepsy and the finding of a CSF hypocretin-1 deficiency in human narcolepsy, the major stream of research has involved the hypocretinergic system. However, other lines of research deserve to be pursued simultaneously, in view of comprehensive advancements in the understanding of narcolepsy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology
  • Humans
  • Narcolepsy / diagnosis*
  • Narcolepsy / genetics
  • Narcolepsy / physiopathology*