Using Narcolepsy to Understand Addiction

Narcolepsy is characterized by extreme fatigue and falling asleep at unusual times, such as in the middle of a conversation or while performing an ordinary, everyday task like answering an email. Among the scientific community, however, narcoleptics are also known for something else: an ability to resist addiction to strong drugs like amphetamines. The cause of narcolepsy has been traced to the lack of hypocretin, which is a neuro-transmitting hormone that regulates sleep. Dr. Sophie Schwartz, a researcher at Geneva University co-authored a study that also involved researchers at the University of Zurich to examine the connection between hypocretin and the ability to resist drug addictions. The study’s objective was to discover whether treatments for insomnia could also be effective for treating individuals struggling with drug addiction. The five-year study is the first to examine these factors in humans. The participants included 14 narcoleptics and 14 healthy individuals who were monitored using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) as they participated in a game-like exercise in which they could win or lose money. The researchers found that there was a difference in brain activity between the narcoleptics and the healthy participants. During the task, the brains of the healthy participants showed response to rewarding conditions, but the narcoleptics who did not have ample amounts of hypocretin did not show the same brain activity. The results support earlier research that has connected hypocretin to the brain’s response to rewards in animals. The hormone is very important for how the brain responds to rewarding stimuli. The study strengthens the theory that reducing hypocretin in individuals struggling with substance addiction will assist them in recovery. Reducing hypocretin may also help treat insomnia without the risk of addiction to sleeping pills. Pharmaceutical companies have been testing drugs that block the effects of hypocretin for the purposes of treating insomnia. The potential for treating insomnia without the risk of addiction could help individuals overcome their sleep deprivation problems, improving the many areas that are affected by the disorder. Insomniacs often suffer from negative social and economic consequences of sleep deprivation. The study’s findings were published in the medical journal Annals of Neurology.

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