As mentioned in the past, I have suffered for some 20 years from an “illness” called Narcolepsy. I say “illness” but to be honest that’s like calling hayfever an illness. It’s more like something you live with, and learn to work around it. The most notable thing is something I came to call blackouts originally, but later became known as seizures when I’d learned more about the illness.
Last week on Discovery Channel there was a programme all about Narcolepsy, and this seems to be one of the better ways of releasing information about the illness and discoveries into it’s causes and possible treatments. There have been other programmes in the past, the BBC’s excellent if slightly alarmist “Nap Attack,” something I spoke about a bit a while ago. Horizon at the time did a more revealing documentary where they claimed to know what had caused the actual onset of a sleep attack, the non-production by the hypothalamus of a chemical called Orexin that keeps you awake.
Now the new documentary has taken an even more astonishing line, and has demonstrated that the illness is contracted, not inherited as was originally believed. I have always told my son about the fact he might start to have blackouts, and to be honest I was his age now, when I first started having “funny turns.” Now doctors have discovered that the Orexin is no longer produced because through some completely separate illness the body’s immune system decides to attack the Orexin and stop producing it. I had a spell of Tonsillitis and Glandular fever as a 14 year old, and at the time I couldn’t walk more then a 100 yards without suffering a blackout. I lost my driving licence in 1990, although I argued that I knew the blackout was coming on. In 1993 I became a guinea pig for the British Medical Association, agreeing to take cocktails of drugs to tackle the blackouts. In 1994, I had to stop taking the drugs when I had a stomach complaint, and in reality I haven’t had much of a problem since.
Not with the Narcolepsy, anyway.
In 1998, rather surprisingly, I caught Mumps. I’d had it before, but my GP said it could come back. In 1999, I caught chicken pox from John. Again, I’d had it as recently as 1991, but this wasn’t like shingles, it was just plain old first time chicken pox again. The second childhood illness in a year caused my GP to sit up. Further tests showed my immune system had a flaw, in that the white blood cells have amnesia. White blood cells attack any foreign body, killing it through several different methods including starving it or overheating it. Once they have killed the illness, they remember what the illness is, so they know how to kill it next time. Only, mine don’t. I am as likely today to catch chicken pox, mumps, or even whooping cough, as if I’d never had it before. So, perhaps this is why my blackouts stopped in 1994. My immune system had “let go” of killing everything, and now I have swapped the serious inconvenience of falling asleep at inopportune moments, to the lesser inconvenience of running a mile from a child with a spotty face!
I wonder if the doctor that diagnosed this, has realised that this is why I no longer have blackouts. I still have a problem with them, don’t get me wrong, but not even a smidgen of the seriousness I had them originally. Perhaps it’s a good thing… I’m not sure.
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