When I first was diagnosed with narcolepsy, I was devastated. I had put together the story that was being told about my brain: probably autoimmune, neurodegenerative, and sorry but you will be this way for the rest of your life. The assumption that there is a neurodegenerative loss of hypocretin/orexin-secreting cells of the hypothalamus in narcoleptic brains is probably not totally inaccurate. Throughout the course of my research, however, I became convinced that an underlying food intolerance could mediate the autoimmune process; if I cut out the food I was intolerant to, I could turn off that process and cool my brain down. And it worked. A month after going gluten free, my symptoms of narcolepsy disappeared.
Even though I was excited to not be tired anymore, I was concerned about this supposed neurodegeneration that was happening in my brain. Even as a scientist, I was taught all throughout school that once you lost a neuron, that was it. Game over. No new neurons for you. However, at the time, there were a few studies coming out demonstrating how aerobic exercise could promote neurogenesis. So — I started running. As I run, I like to image the little dendrites of the hypocretin-secreting neurons I do have left reaching out and making new connections, restoring my narco brain to something not handicapped by some mysterious autoimmune process.
The plan was (and still is) simple: 1) stop all future neurodegeneration by turning off the autoimmune and inflammatory processes (this was made possible by going gluten free), and 2) promote new neuronal growth by exercising every day.
All of that was fine and dandy, but as a rational person, I needed some proof. What if the current view was right? There was always a crippling fear in the back of my mind that I was wrong. That somehow, someway, the narcolepsy was going to win.
I lived with this fear, until I read this paper: Adult Neurogenesis in the Hypothalamus. And there it was. I could stop the inflammation with a gluten free diet, and make new neurons in areas that I thought may have been completely ablated. The realization that we all in fact have the potential to make these new neurons is nothing but relief.
It means, without a doubt, that once you turn off the inflammation, you can turn your brain back on.