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Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family

Watson the dog

Meet Watson, the narcoleptic chihuahua. He's just like any other pampered pup, except he collapses when he's excited, thanks to his narcolepsy. I enjoyed a demonstration of Watson's special skills last week, when I visited Stanford sleep researcher Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD.

Mignot discovered the gene that triggers narcolepsy in dogs more than a decade ago, and before getting Watson he had recently lost his narcoleptic companion, Bear, a black Belgian schipperke who would swoon over broccoli. (For a lovely elegy to Bear, check out this KQED piece, including video.)

Still heartbroken, Mignot wasn't in the market for a new dog. And certainly not for a chihuahua.

But a phone call from a breeder who had an unadoptable, sleepy dog, led to a visit to Vermont - and before long, Watson arrived. Now, Mignot is smitten, cooing to the squirmy dog in his native French. I detailed the story in the current issue of Inside Stanford Medicine.

Mignot uses Watson to demonstrate the effects of an cataplectic attack to children who are suffering from the disease. (Watson’s entertaining performance can calm frightened patients, Mignot told me.) In my piece I outlined what happened when Watson was offered a chunk of pork (one of his triggers) last week: "Watson took a big sniff and staggered backwards, struggling to ward off the attack that was paralyzing his muscles — pushing him toward sleep in just seconds. He recovered slightly, climbing to his feet and lunging for the food."

Watson is particularly susceptible to grass-fed filet mignon, Whole Foods roast beef and new toys. He also collapses for joy when Mignot returns home from work, Mignot told me.

Interestingly, the causes of narcolepsy in humans and dogs may differ:

In humans, narcolepsy is caused when the immune system attacks certain neurons in the brain. These neurons produce a peptide called hypocretin that helps promote wakefulness and inhibits dreaming. Some dogs have that type of narcolepsy as well, although others have a genetic form that stems from a mutation in the hypocretin peptide receptor gene. Watson is a family pet and has not undergone any kind of genetic testing, so Mignot doesn’t know what type of narcolepsy he has.

Previously: Narcolepsy=autoimmune disease, Stanford center launches Huffington Post blog on the "very mysterious process" of sleep and Studying pediatric sleep disorders an "integral part" of the future of sleep medicine 
Photo by Becky Bach

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