Link Between Heroin Addiction And Narcolepsy Examined

By Keri Blakinger 07/02/18

Could opiates be the key to treating the chronic sleep disorder?

woman sleeping in her bed

Heroin could be the next big breakthrough in treating narcolepsy. 

That’s one possibility raised in a paper published recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine, detailing new work probing the connection between addiction and the chronic sleep disorder.a

When narcoleptics nod off or lose muscle control, it’s caused by a lack of hypocretin in the brain. But to probe the connection further between the wakefulness-controlling chemical and the sleep disorder linked to it, researchers started studying the brains of dead narcoleptics. In the process, they stumbled across one brain that stood out. 

It had a lot more hypocretin-producing cells than the other brains – and then the researchers learned that person had been addicted to heroin. So the scientists decided to start looking at the brains of people who had struggled with opioid use disorder before their deaths.

In the first four samples they studied, researchers found the opioid-addicted brains had an average of 54% more hypocretin-producing cells than regular brains. 

“So it was natural to ask if opiates would reverse narcolepsy,” study co-author Jerry Siegel, a neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles, told Gizmodo.

The next step, Siegel explained, was trying a study with mice. 

Over a two-week period, researchers drugged up narcoleptic mice with regular doses of morphine. The experiment upped their hypocretin-making cells, and the effect lasted for a few weeks after scientists cut off the dosage. 

Basically, the researchers said, the opiates wake up dormant cells that make the necessary chemical. 

“Understanding why opiates ‘awaken’ these cells is a task for the future,” Siegel said. 

But other scientists voiced reservations about the work. Even if opioids turn out to be an effective treatment in humans, there are practical limitations. 

“No mother of a 15-year-old with narcolepsy would sign onto us giving them several doses of morphine a day,” sleep expert Thomas Scammell of Harvard Medical School told Gizmodo.

Yet, the findings could herald new hope for addiction treatment. If opiates users have more neurons that make hypocretin, the researchers suggested, then maybe they need less. 

“If chronic use of opioids is increasing hypocretin production—and the authors show that nicely—then that could amplify the rewarding aspects of these drugs, making addiction all that much worse,” Scammell said. “I think that’s actually the most interesting part of their research.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.