Epilepsy vs Narcolepsy: Differences and Similarities

In this article, we will take a close look at two neurological disorders: epilepsy and narcolepsy. We will explore their symptoms, causes, and treatment options and highlight the key differences between them. This information can aid in the proper diagnosis and management of these conditions.
Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Neuroscientist at the University Of Cambridge.

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Understanding the Difference Between Epilepsy and Narcolepsy

Epilepsy and narcolepsy are both neurological disorders, but they differ significantly. Epilepsy is characterized by recurrent, unprovoked seizures, while narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden attacks of sleep. Understanding these differences can help in proper diagnosis and treatment.

What Is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder [1]. Primarily, it affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles [1, 2].

People affected by narcolepsy are often excessive daytime sleepers, which leads to disruptions and awakenings during the night's sleep. In addition, throughout the waking hours, they experience muscle weakness [1, 3].

Another common symptom of narcolepsy is sleep paralysis. People experiencing this symptom can’t move or speak as they are falling asleep or as they are waking up [1].

Narcolepsy can also cause hypnagogic hallucinations (vivid and frightening dreams occurring while asleep) [1].

The onset of this disorder is usually between the ages of 10 and 50, although most patients report the first symptoms between the ages of 15 and 35 [3].

Interestingly, narcolepsy is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Specifically, HLA and DQB1*0602 alleles have been indicative of genetic predisposition [1].

Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, the symptoms can be managed by medication, lifestyle changes, and support from family and friends [2].

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by at least one epileptic seizure. An epileptic seizure refers to a sudden occurrence of symptoms due to excessive neuronal activity in the brain [4].

Although even after a singular seizure, we classify that as epilepsy, it is a chronic disorder and usually, the individual will experience recurrent episodes of such seizures [5].

The abnormal electrical brain activity is usually a cause of excessive excitation of cortical neurons and leads to symptoms like loss of awareness or uncontrollable twitching [6].

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder, affecting 50 million people around the world and nearly 3.5 million people in the United States [7]. It is the most frequent chronic neurologic condition of childhood, affecting 0.5%-1% of children worldwide [8].

What Is The Difference Between Narcolepsy And Epilepsy?

So now that we know about Narcolepsy and Epilepsy, we can compare these two.

Both of them are neurological disorders; however, they present differently and have distinct symptoms and causes.

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that can cause an overwhelming urge to fall asleep. This can happen at any time, even during physical activities or eating [9].

Epilepsy is characterized by seizures which result in brief lapses of attention, muscle jerks, or even severe prolonged convulsions. Similarly to narcolepsy, it can strike at any time [10].

When comparing the conditions from a psychosocial impact, both epilepsy and narcolepsy can lead to reduced performance at work or school as the sufferer's daily life can get disrupted at any time with unknown frequency. In addition, epileptic seizures can be very tiring as they are a result of abnormal brain activity [11].

Epilepsy can be treated with epileptic drugs which help with the control of the seizures, and narcolepsy is often managed by the combination of amphetamines and tricyclic antidepressants [12, 3].

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Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Frederika is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates new biomarkers for Frontotemporal Dementia and other tauopathies. Her research has been published at prestigious conferences such as the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023. She obtained her BSc in Biomedical Sciences from UCL, where she worked closely with the UK Dementia Research Institute.