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Stanford University School of Medicine

Starring Watson, the four-legged ambassador of narcolepsy


We all have beats here in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Just as in journalism, we're each responsible for covering particular topics, knowing the key people and keeping atop of the latest developments. As I'm often busy with Scope, I just have just a few: diversity, ophthalmology and narcoleptic dogs.

Yes, you read that correctly: If you have any story ideas involving narcoleptic dogs, I'm the gal to talk to. Stanford has a long history of using extra-sleepy dogs to learn more about sleep science. Though that phase in the university's history is over, narcolepsy researcher and clinician Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, found he couldn't stay away from these unusual dogs. As I write in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine:

Mignot found Watson (or, perhaps, Watson found Mignot) in 2014, not long after the passing of his dog Bear, a stately, black Belgian schipperke, who was also narcoleptic. Still grieving, Mignot received a call from a veterinarian in Vermont familiar with Mignot’s work who had a very sleepy Chihuahua puppy in need of a home. Mignot had doubts, major ones: It felt too soon for a new dog. And he’d never particularly liked Chihuahuas.

It turns out Watson the narcoleptic Chihuahua is pretty darn likable. And, though he's a family pet, he helps Mignot reach out to children suffering from the debilitating disorder, which can cause extreme drowsiness and cataplexy, or sudden physical weakness, often triggered by strong emotions like eagerness and delight. These children (you'll meet one in the story) often suffer at school and bounce from doctor to doctor trying to obtain the right diagnosis and a workable treatment. There currently is no therapy that targets the cause of narcolepsy, a fault in the relationship between a brain signaling chemical, hypocretin, and its receptor.

Mignot — who discovered the gene for narcolepsy — has learned most about the disorder through his research and by working with his patients. But that doesn't mean Watson hasn't managed to teach him a thing or two as well:

Watson can’t do anything for very long. “He gets so excited when we play — he loves to hide his pig — and then he suddenly collapses. It’s so hard. I know he wants to continue to play and sometimes he just can’t do any better than that. I feel bad about that,” Mignot says.

For humans, narcolepsy intrudes just when they let down their guard a bit, to laugh with friends or enjoy a tasty snack. “I understand it’s the same with kids,” he says. “It’s really terrible, it makes even your good times bad.”

Previously: Ties that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationshipsOn narcolepsy, naps, the genetics of sleep (and chocolate?)"I consider myself just a scientist": The career of Stanford sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot and Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher's family
Photo by Lenny Gonzalez

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