Autoimmune diseases

Study: Narcolepsy Could Be Autoimmune Disease

Findings from a new study suggest that narcolepsy could be an autoimmune disorder, and should be treated like one.

A Tel Aviv University-led team of researchers says it has discovered an autoimmune process in the brain that triggers the loss of orexin neurons—brain cells that maintain a balance between sleep and wakefulness.

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In their study, the investigators worked with researchers from the Sleep Control Project at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Psychiatry, who had published a study on an auto-antibody presence attacking tribbles, the small granules in the brain that contain orexin neurons. According to the authors, patients and animals with narcolepsy have less orexin in the brain, which results in an imbalance between sleep and wakefulness, which in turn leads to attacks of narcolepsy.

The researchers collaborated with the Japanese group in an effort to isolate the specific antibodies, which were injected directly into laboratory mice. The team monitored the behavior of the mice for several months, tracking sleep patterns, finding “an increased number of sleep attacks and irregular patterns of sleep in mice,” said Yehuda Schoenfeld, MD, the Laura Schwarz-Kipp chair for research of autoimmune diseases at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and co-author of the study, in a statement.

“Mice fall asleep like dogs, circling around before going to sleep,” according to Schoenfeld. “Suddenly, in this experiment, the mice just dropped off to sleep and then, just 2 minutes later, woke up as though nothing had happened.  

According to Shoenfeld and his colleagues in the study, their goal is to change the perception and diagnosis of narcolepsy, define it as a known autoimmune disease, develop a truer understanding of its mechanism, and ultimately develop better treatment and even a cure for the disease.  

—Mark McGraw


Arango MT, Kivity S, et al. Is narcolepsy a classical autoimmune disease? Pharmacol Res. 2015.