Waking up to Narcolepsy

Antara Das delves into the mechanism behind a sleep disorder, a scientific discovery that just won the Breakthrough Prize, one of the biggest science prizes in the world. 

Feat narcolepsy

This year’s Breakthrough Prizes, sometimes dubbed the Oscars of science’, were announced on September 22. With a reward of USD 3 million each, these are currently the most lucrative science prizes in the world, topping even the Nobel Prizes! This time, eleven researchers were recognised for their discoveries in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

Emmanuel Mignot and Masashi Yanagisawa shared a prize for independently discovering the causes of narcolepsy, a chronic neurodegenerative disease that was for far too long shrouded in mystery. The disease is characterised by the inability of the affected person’s brain to control sleep-wake cycles. 

Mignot and Yanagisawa illustrated with their experiments that a protein called orexin was central to the disease. Their discoveries have led to treatments shown to relieve the symptoms of narcolepsy, as well as enabling the design of sleep-inducing drugs. Moreover, now that we know narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease with autoimmune origins, it raises the possibility that other neurodegenerative diseases may also be caused by selective loss of neurons.

Antara Das is a neurobiologist working as a faculty at Azim Premji University. She studies how genetic mutations in ion channels can lead to an electrical imbalance in the brain, resulting in brain disorders such as epilepsy, which affects about 1% of the world’s population including about 12 lakh people in India.

Antara is especially interested in understanding the circadian clock that regulates a body’s sleep-wake cycles, as well as sleep disorders that are often associated with epilepsy. To conduct her experiments, she uses the fruit fly — or Drosophila melanogaster—as a model system.

Along with her undergraduate students, she is currently exploring how sleep deprivation can affect an individual’s food choices, and how different circuits in the brain can interact to result in seizures and epilepsy. 

Antara is excited to see that her area of research is being recognised. 

For the longest time people did not know that this could arise from a neuromolecular pathway. It was interesting to see that narcolepsy was caused by slightly different mechanisms in dogs and humans, but to the same orexin pathway. This shows that it is important to study the phenomenon in different organisms and find common pathways to guide us towards a better cure or therapy.”

Watch Antara Das as she helps us make sense of the prize winning discovery:


About the Author

Nandita Jayaraj is a Science writer and Communications Consultant at Azim Premji University.

Know more about the BSc in Biology programme at Azim Premji University here.

Know more about the Dual Degree in Science and Education (BSc BEd) programme at Azim Premji University here.