The Definition of Narcolepsy and What Causes It

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that impedes the brain’s ability to control its sleep-wake cycles. It’s a lifelong condition that can have serious and negative repercussions on someone’s physical, psychological, cognitive, emotional, and even social functioning if it isn’t identified and treated.

People who have narcolepsy may fall asleep suddenly and uncontrollably right in the middle of doing something like eating, talking, laughing, or even having sex, says Eric Olson, MD, an associate professor of medicine, a sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, and a board member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). These episodes of sudden sleep may last for a few seconds up to several minutes, or in rare cases, even as long as several hours. And because narcolepsy affects both sleep and wake cycles, another characteristic of narcolepsy is waking up several times during the night.

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