Most of us don’t get nearly enough sleep, but it’s almost as bad to get too much. Excessive sleepiness, otherwise known as “primary hypersomnia”, can be a sign of a number of conditions from vitamin deficiencies to sleep apnea. A great story today in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a woman who was tested and had been ruled out for everything that could be causing her to be tired, but still she needed to sleep sometimes for days at a time. Her case led to a cure for one type of hypersomnia.
Anna Sumner, a young Atlanta attorney, sought help at the Emory University sleep clinic in 2005. After napping frequently throughout college and law school, her sleep cravings began intensifying. Eventually she reached the point where she’d go to sleep and not wake up for two days. These sleeping spells increased in frequency, causing her to need to take a leave from work.
Emory doctors discovered that a substance called somnogen was in Ms. Sumner’s spinal fluid. It was activating a natural sleep-inducing brain chemical. The effect was like being under constant twilight sedation. Doctors treated her with a drug called flumazenil, which is used to counteract overdoses of sedatives. After several days in the hospital on an IV drip, she woke, feeling rested and alert. Ms. Sumners now takes the drug in lozenge form, and has established a more normal sleeping pattern.
Doctors at Emory say since the discovery they have found somnogen in the spinal fluid of 32 sleep-clinic patients. They tested flumazenil on seven of them and found that it restored alertness in all of them to differing degrees.