Henry Nicholls is a science writer and narcoleptic, a condition characterised by a frequent and overwhelming need to sleep. The current thinking is that narcolepsy develops in genetically vulnerable individuals when the immune system mishandles an infection.The outcome is an autoimmune attack on a region of the hypothalamus that produces the hormone orexin (aka hypocretin). Orexins are the ‘stay awake’ hormone, in other words they carry a message around the brain ‘stay awake’. In their absence the brain goes to sleep. So what Henry, and other narcoleptics, need is an orexin substitute.
So are drug companies researching this? No, they are trying to find ways of blocking the production of orexin rather than trying to find ways to produce it. Why? Because insomnia is a much bigger problem for people than narcolepsy (there are about 150 times more insomniacs than narcoleptics). In many cases insomnia might be due to an overactive orexin system. The drug company Merck are trialling a drug called Suvorexant which is due to be released in the US later this year. Narcoleptics are going to have to wait.