While reporting a Stanford Medicine magazine story on narcolepsy — and an awfully cute sleepy Chihuahua named Watson — I remember thinking, “Gosh, this would make a good book.” As it turns out, I’m not the only one to think this. Science writer Henry Nicholls, who has narcolepsy, has taken on the task: His book, Sleepyhead: Neuroscience, narcolepsy and the search for a good night, will be published in March.
Bravo for him — if the book is anything like an essay that recently appeared in Mosaic and several other outlets, it should be a good read.
Nicholls weaves his own personal tale — which involves a time in Africa when his job was to keep watch for lions, a task he was unquestionably ill-suited for — with the story of the science of narcolepsy, a story in which many major episodes took place right here at Stanford.
The full piece is well worth your time, but I’ll leave you with Nicholls’ description of his meeting with narcolepsy researcher and physician Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, and with Watson, his black-and-white Chihuahua:
The man tasked with hunting down the mutation responsible [for narcolepsy] was Emmanuel Mignot, who subsequently succeeded Dement as director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. We meet in his office there, joined by Watson, a narcoleptic Chihuahua he adopted a few years ago. ‘It’s such a silly breed,’ he says, holding down Watson’s ears to prevent them from burning, then setting him on the floor. ‘Not one I would ever have chosen myself.’
At first, Watson is wary of me, keeping his distance and growling. When I get down to his eye level, he yaps and jumps in at me, then out, pretending he is fiercer than he is. I can empathise, even across the gulf that separates his species from mine. I know about the excessive daytime sleepiness. I know about the cataplexy, how it feels to have emotions short a neurological circuit in the brainstem and cause a muscular collapse (just as occurs in the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep, when most dreaming takes place). I wonder if Watson suffers the total terror of sleep paralysis and the supernatural hallucinations that often accompany it.
As he looks back at me, his eyelids close and open with a dullness I recognise. He turns, daintily steps into his basket and curls up for the rest of the interview.
Previously: Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua demonstrates symptoms on-air, Starring Watson, the four-legged ambassador of narcolepsy and “I consider myself just a scientist”: The career of Stanford sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot
Photo of Emmanuel Mignot and Watson by Lenny Gonzalez