In the late nineteenth century, Herr Louis Dobermann, a German tax collector, decided to breed a dog so protective that it could serve as a personal guardian for travel through bandit-infested country, and so fierce that its mere presence would convince reluctant taxpayers to pay up. How ironic, then, that the field of sleep disorders was recently advanced by a pedigree of narcoleptic Doberman Pinschers who drop sound asleep whenever they become excited
Affected dogs have similar symptoms to those of affected humans, with emotionally triggered cataplexy, pathological manifestations of REM sleep, early age of onset and increased daytime sleepiness. Simple positive stimuli, such as the presentation of a favourite snack, are sufficient to trigger an attack.
Narcolepsy is a debilitating neurologic disease characterized by abnormally fragmented night-time 'REM' sleep (this is an intense phase of sleep accompanied by rapid eye-movements (REM) and dreaming), constant day time sleepiness, and irresistible 'sleep attacks' that occur even when the sufferer is walking and talking. Most cases of narcolepsy appear to be sporadic, with genetic and environmental factors probably contributing to their incidence. A study published in a recent issue of Cell indicates that Ling Lin, Emmanuel Mignot and colleagues1 have gained a foothold into the cell biology of narcolepsy. They have exploited a rare, highly penetrant form of the disease to map and clone the gene responsible—by breeding a pedigree of Doberman Pinschers with inherited narcolepsy (Fig. 2). Another study, in which Richard Chemelli et al.2 engineer a mouse model of narcolepsy, independently implicates the same genetic pathway.