For Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, sleep is life. A psychologist, behavioral scientist and the current director of the legendary Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, Mignot spends the majority of his waking hours in search of ways to help us all rest better.
In 1999, Dr. Mignot famously discovered the genetic mutation that causes narcolepsy, that debilitating condition that causes patients to leap immediately from wakefulness to REM sleep, often triggering loss of muscle control, sleep paralysis and hallucinations.
There is currently no cure for narcolepsy, but Dr. Mignot is hard at work on a treatment. Taking clues from an H1N1 vaccine that caused one in 15,000 patients to develop narcolepsy, he’s identified one of the factors that destroys hypocretin — a chemical in the brain whose absence causes the sleep disorder. He estimates that a treatment should be available within the next ten years, though it will protect those at risk of developing the condition, not restore lost hypocretin.
Even for someone who knows the subject of sleep so intimately, Mignot has his own unique battles with rest. In his own words, here’s the world’s leading narcolepsy researcher on sleep, dreams, naps and narcoleptic dogs.
I have fairly regular sleep habits. I go to bed around 10 or 11 p.m. and usually wake up once in the middle of the night. Usually, I go into the kitchen and eat something like a piece of chocolate — always dark chocolate — and then I go back to sleep pretty quickly. Maybe it does keep me up a little bit, but I like it too much to get rid of it.
My sleep is a little boring. It’s not great, but it’s not traumatic.
I wake up in the morning around six o’clock and I try to exercise if I can. I don’t eat breakfast. I only take coffee — a cappuccino — which I make myself. Sometimes I eat a little bit of bread and honey.
I love to nap. If I go back home for lunch, which I probably do half the time, I’ll nap after lunch for about 30 minutes. I suppose this does make my pattern of waking up in the middle of the night a bit more evident.
Thirty-minute naps are fine for me. In theory you’re supposed to nap long enough to go into REM sleep and have a good cycle, but after 30 minutes I feel refreshed. It takes me maybe five or ten minutes to fall asleep, and I’ll get maybe 20 minutes of good sleep, probably mostly phase two sleep. I don’t dream during my naps. I wouldn’t say it’s very common that I dream at all. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of dreams for a few days and then suddenly nothing for a long time.
As you know, the dreams you remember are not necessarily the most pleasant. Often there’s a theme where, you know, I kind of do something bad, and I’m being caught doing it, and then I wake up and say, “Oh, thank God I didn’t do that.”
In addition to my narcolepsy research, I’m trying to do a genetic study of people with sleep problems. I want to collect a lot of people with sleep problems to try to see if there’s a genetic trait that causes people to sleep well or not sleep well, to need more sleep or less sleep. This hasn’t been done yet. The problem is, it’s expensive when you’re trying to do genetic typing on this scale. It costs maybe $50 per subject — for a study with 40,000 people it’ll get really expensive really quickly. So I hope we can get that funded soon.
I have a narcoleptic dog. He’s a Chihuahua named Watson and I adopted him about a year ago. He was born at a breeder in Vermont and when he developed narcolepsy, his owner didn’t really want to keep him. I had another dog with narcolepsy, a Schipperke named Bear, who had died two months before I adopted Watson. So I’ve always felt that he was a reincarnation of Bear.
Watson’s narcolepsy usually manifests when he gets excited. Every day I play with him a little and he definitely gets big attacks. When we play fetch, he’ll go and get the toy and then I’ll try to take it from him — and he just falls asleep. I have to catch him as he falls over.