Animal Models of Narcolepsy and the Hypocretin/orexin System: Past, Present, and Future


Tisdale RK, Yamanaka A, Kilduff TS. Sleep. 2021 Jun 11;44(6):zsaa278. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa278. PMID: 33313880


Animal models have advanced not only our understanding of the etiology and phenotype of the sleep disorder narcolepsy but have also informed sleep/wake regulation more generally. The identification of an inheritable narcolepsy phenotype in dogs in the 1970s allowed the establishment of a breeding colony at Stanford University, resulting in studies that provided the first insights into the genetics and neurotransmitter systems that underlie cataplexy and rapid-eye movement sleep atonia. Although the discovery of the hypocretin/orexin neuropeptides in 1998 initially seemed unrelated to sleep/wake control, the description of the phenotype of the prepro-orexin knockout (KO) mouse as strongly resembling cataplexy, the pathognomonic symptom of narcolepsy, along with identification of a mutation in hypocretin receptor-2 gene as the source of canine narcolepsy, unequivocally established the relationship between this system and narcolepsy. The subsequent discovery of hypocretin neuron degeneration in human narcolepsy demystified a disorder whose etiology had been unknown since its initial description 120 years earlier. These breakthroughs prompted the development of numerous other animal models that have allowed manipulation of the hypocretin/orexin system, thereby advancing our understanding of sleep/wake circuitry. While animal models have greatly informed understanding of this fascinating disorder and the role of the hypocretin/orexin system in sleep/wake control, the question of why these neurons degenerate in human narcolepsy is only beginning to be understood. The development of new immune-mediated narcolepsy models are likely to further inform the etiology of this sleep disorder and animal models will undoubtedly play a critical role in the development of novel narcolepsy therapeutics.

Keywords: animal models; cataplexy; hypocretin; narcolepsy; orexin; sleep; sleep regulation.

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