Sleeping Beauty for Real
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Sleeping Beauty discovers the tower room with the old woman at a spinning wheel

Most of us are familiar with narcolepsy, when sleep comes on quickly, without warning during the day. But we want to tell you about hypersomnia.

It’s less known but also debilitating because a person can sleep eighteen hours and still wake up tired and stay groggy throughout the day. Researchers believe a possible cause of hypersomnia is a mystery protein and have even identified a possible treatment.

They worked with people who have normal sleep and those with hypersomnia, comparing their cerebral spinal fluid, which is fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Researchers had a hunch something in the fluid was triggering excessive sleep, kind of the way sedatives work.

Take Xanax; it stimulates a sleep receptor called GABA-subtype-A. When these receptors are stimulated by GABA, brain activity decreases which promotes sleep.

To see if something similar in the cerebral spinal fluid of hypersomniacs was over-stimulating these GABA receptors, researchers applied the fluid along with GABA to cells in the lab. The GABA receptors started signaling excessively, twice as much compared to people with normal sleep. This proves something in their cerebral spinal fluid is triggering chronic sleep.

What’s encouraging is the researchers also found a drug called flumazenil may improve symptoms. One woman with a fifteen year history of hypersomnia took a pill form of flumazenil for four years. Now she sleeps just eight hours, wakes refreshed, and is back at work.

A large drug trial is still needed to make the drug generally available. But hypersomniacs won’t want to wait since a kiss from a prince is hard to come by.

For more information…

Putting Themselves to Sleep
A layman-friendly article from the journal Science

Modulation of Vigilance in the Primary Hypersomnias by Endogenous Enhancement of GABAA Receptors
Also from Science, the scientific paper regarding the study discussed in this week's episode

Idiopathic hypersomnia
Info on hypersomnia from the National Institutes of Health's MedlinePlus website