Doberman Pinschers Asleep on the Job: Uncovering the Mysteries of Narcolepsy

Many Doberman Pinschers are used as guard dogs. Unfortunately, it is common for this breed to have narcolepsy, keeping them from their guarding duties. [Unedited Photo: “Doberman Pinscher” by Tina Li, License: CC BY 2.0]

In the dark of night, a policeman and his canine companion, a Doberman Pinscher, were found snoozing on the job. As it turns out they were not slacking off, but were both suffering from a neurological disease called narcolepsy.

When the policeman was diagnosed with this unusual disorder, he began researching to grasp a better understanding of his condition. To his surprise he discovered that this condition among Doberman Pinschers is not rare. Ironically, many of these guard dogs suffer from narcolepsy, which causes them to unexpectedly fall into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep on the job, paralyzing their muscles from head to paws (“Hereditary Problems of The Doberman Pinscher,” n.d.).

The sleepy policeman also discovered that a German watchman named Karl Friedrich Louis Doberman began breeding dogs back in the 19th century for sharp senses, a strong jaw, intelligence, and protective instincts. (“Get to Know the Doberman Pinscher,” n.d.). This night watchman successfully created the ultimate dog for the job, the Doberman Pinscher.

During a visit with his doctor, the policeman claimed he felt so tired, he could collapse. His description fits narcoleptic people and canines alike. This neurological disease is caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Those with narcolepsy may have abrupt sleep attacks, insomnia, fatigue, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, muscle atonia, and cataplexy.

The Hypnogram graph above represents stages of sleep as a function of time. [Unedited Photo: “Sleep Hypnogram” by RazerM, License: CC BY-SA 3.0]

The policeman’s doctor informed him that patients with narcolepsy have abnormal sleeping patterns. When narcoleptics initially fall asleep, they are in a lighter stage of sleep referred to as “non-REM,” and as time passes, they will progress into deeper stages, called “REM sleep”. The average individual will transition from non-REM to REM about 90 minutes after they initially fall asleep. While individuals are asleep, they cycle through the different sleep stages. During REM sleep, the brain and spinal cord circuits prevent the neural excitation of muscles, essentially paralyzing the sleeper (muscle atonia) to keep them from acting out their dreams. In contrast, narcoleptics  enter REM sleep immediately after dozing off and sometimes involuntarily fall into a dream state paralysis during the day (“Narcolepsy and Sleep,” n.d.).  One of the major symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, the complete loss of muscle tone during wakefulness. Cataplexy results from the degeneration of brain and spinal cord circuits. Although extreme sleepiness is usually associated with narcolepsy, those with this disorder do not usually sleep more than normal, they simply cannot control when they sleep (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2012).

Although researchers still do not completely understand the causes of narcolepsy, more information is known about this disease than ever before thanks to the policeman’s pal, the Doberman Pinscher. The first major breakthrough regarding the physiological roots of narcolepsy was made by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine in California led by French scientist, Dr. Emmanuel Mignot.

A depiction of a hypocretin, or orexin, protein, the receptor that can display a mutation that causes narcolepsy in Doberman Pinschers [Unedited Photo: “1R02 Crystallography”, Public Domain]

Mignot worked with Dr. William Dement, a successful breeder of narcoleptic Doberman Pinschers.  In previous research, Dement had discovered that canine narcolepsy is inherited directly from the parents and is an autosomal recessive trait, meaning both parents must pass down the mutated gene for the offspring to develop the disorder. (“What Causes Narcolepsy?,” n.d.).

The purpose of Mignot’s study was to identify and isolate the gene responsible for canine narcolepsy. In 1999, Mignot found a gene involved in the production of specific receptors located on nerve cells (“What Causes Narcolepsy?,” n.d.). These receptors assist in the transmission of messages that initiate wakefulness in many species. The mutation of this gene interfered with the transmission of these messages, causing narcolepsy in canines (Lang, Faraco, & Li, 1999). The discovery made scientists around the world wonder if a similar genetic link to narcolepsy existed in humans. Although results are still inconclusive, through continued research the scientific community has recognized that there is a hereditary component to narcolepsy in humans. Due to the inconsistency of study results, some scientists speculate that both a genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a role in this disorder. (“What Causes Narcolepsy?,” n.d.).

Although narcolepsy still baffles scientists, Doberman Pinschers, like the pup shown above, have helped scientist to learn about the orgin of this neurological disorder. [Unedited Photo: “10 Week Old Doberman Pinscher” by Jenna Gross, License: CC BY 2.0]

The primary methods of treatment for narcoleptic canines and humans are prescription drugs, including methylphenidate and protriptyline. There are several institutions, universities, hospitals, and sleep centers around the world, such as The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , which continue to study narcolepsy to further understand the disease and hopefully find a cure. Although there is not yet a cure for the narcoleptic policeman, he owes thanks to his Doberman Pinscher companion for providing an important clue to understanding why they both fell asleep…on and off the job.

In Brief:

  • Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles.
  • Symptoms: sleep attacks, insomnia, fatigue, hallucinations, sleep paralysis and cataplexy.
  • Dr. Mignot discovered a gene that causes narcolepsy in Doberman Pinschers.
  • Researchers think that there is connection between the gene that causes narcolepsy in Doberman Pinchers and the cause of narcolepsy in humans.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw15. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff



Author: cYw15

Welcome to the cYw website! Whether you have a career in science or are just a curious individual wanting to expand your knowledge, let us entertain you with articles regarding the bio-medical field. As a child, my family moved all over the United States, experiencing many different climates and ecosystems. Everywhere I have lived I have been surrounded by new plants and animals that continue to fascinate me and fuel my love of science. In the future I hope to become either an environmental or bio-medical engineer, while being an author on the side. Besides science, I love tennis, playing the flute, hiking, writing, drawing, and designing things (from architecture to fashion). Do not hesitate to leave comments on our stories; your advice will help us to become better writers!

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    #curiousyoungwriters #narcolepsy
    Thank you for taking the time to feature a lesser known medical condition. I am a laboratory animal scientist and a narcolepsy patient. As you clearly noted it is not a well understood condition and is thus frequently misdiagnosed. For me it took 12 years to get a confirmed diagnosis. Since then I have been able to use the available treatments much more effectively. You did a very good job with a very confusing topic. I also appreciated that you noted the importance of Migot’s work and the contribution of the Dobermans even though it did not answer all the questions about narcolepsy in humans. His work got people interested in the subject and provided a base for future studies. In the same way your article will get those who read and share it talking. With more people understanding it more will get the help they need so once again THANK YOU!

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      Thank you for your comments! I am thankful to know that the information I provided was accurate and interesting. As a student, it was hard to find reliable sources. Many of the articles I reviewed contradicted each-other, so I ended up reading scientific studies regarding Narcolepsy. I didn’t realize the severity and randomness of the disease until I viewed a video showing a canine going into cataplexy. I can’t even imagine living in your shoes. I think it is extremely unfortunate that the majority of the public is not aware of the disease and how it impacts peoples’ lives. I feel that illnesses and diseases that are rare and mysterious do not get the scientific and public attention needed, and people are less empathetic and supportive of those with such medical problems. Once again, thanks, and keep reading cYw!

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    Great article! One of my cousins and also one of my mom’s best friends both had narcolepsy. It’s great to see the progress being made. Thanks!

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      I am glad you read the article! Feel free to share it with others. Part of finding treatments to diseases is by getting funding through public awareness. I had no idea about the severity of Narcolepsy until I began to research it. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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    Fascinating article. I had no idea that dogs also had narcolepsy.

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    Impressive article. Check out the “Fainting Goats” on U-tube…

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    This article was interesting. I did not know about narcolepsy until now. I hope they find a cure soon

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    It was so interesting to read that dogs can get narcolepsy– maybe we’ll discover the cure through them in the future. I also liked that you gave a brief recap at the end of the article as a reminder of the most important points.

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    A very interesting article, which was enjoyable to read and taught me something new.

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