HATTIESBURG - People
with narcolepsy, a disorder characterized by uncontrollable sleepiness
at all times, are most likely born in March, say researchers at
The University of Southern Mississippi.
Dr. John Harsh, a psychology professor at Southern
Miss, said month of birth is a risk factor not only for narcolepsy,
which afflicts about 135,000 Americans, but also for a number of
other neurological disorders, most notably schizophrenia.
Studies conducted at the Southern Miss Sleep Research
Laboratory have replicated and extended the work of other scientists
who have reported that more patients with narcolepsy are born in
March than any other month.
"We're as confident as we can be scientifically,"
Harsh said of the findings, concluded from studies of national databases.
"It's a very sharp peak - not April or February, but March."
About 25 percent of the most severe cases of narcolepsy
occur in patients who are born in March, Harsh said. "That's
a pretty remarkable finding. It gives new significance to the admonition
"Beware the ides of March."
Narcoleptics suffer from a lifelong inability to maintain
the boundaries of wakefulness and sleep. People with narcolepsy
experience sometimes overwhelming urges to sleep at any time of
the day, and bouts of sleep can last anywhere from a few seconds
to several minutes.
Fellow researcher Dante Picchioni, a doctoral candidate
at Southern Miss, said there are several possible reasons why month
of birth is a determining factor for narcolepsy. One possible reason,
he said, is because of some "noxious event" that occurs
in the early stages of pregnancy - such as a viral infection.
"If you go back about six months from March,
to September, that's the peak of the cold season. That stage of
development, the beginning of the second trimester, is also the
time at which a child's brain is quite vulnerable," Picchioni
Harsh and Picchioni work with a team of investigators
including Dr. Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University and Dr. Geoffrey
Hartwig at Forrest General Hospital's Sleep Disorder Center. Together,
the researchers from the three institutions plan to learn more about
the cause of narcolepsy in an upcoming study of brain tissue provided
by a narcoleptic donor.
The donor is the deceased patriarch of an African-American
family from south Mississippi with multiple cases of narcolepsy.
"He was a very special man who was very interested in narcolepsy
and how it could be treated. He cared enough to donate his brain
to science. In fact, the whole family has been very helpful as well
and has participated in our studies for about 15 years," Harsh
"There were seven or eight narcoleptics in the
first and second generation of this family. We had 13 members of
the family come in for spinal taps to help our research. They're
very dedicated to helping find the cause (of narcolepsy),"
The researchers are currently searching for a brain
tissue donor - specifically an elderly African-American male not
afflicted with narcolepsy - whose brain tissue would serve, upon
the death of the donor, as the control in the study.
Mignot will analyze the donor tissue at Stanford,
creating a library of genes for future analysis. The procedure,
Harsh said, is "cutting-edge science and will be the first
ever use of the technique in the study of human disease."
If successful, the technique could be applied to the
study of other diseases like Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia.
For more information about narcolepsy or the brain
donor program, contact the Southern Miss Sleep Research Laboratory