The Journal of Neuroscience
Narcolepsy is characterized by excessive sleepiness and cataplexy, sudden episodes of muscle weakness during waking that are thought to be an intrusion of rapid eye movement sleep muscle atonia into wakefulness. One of the most striking aspects of cataplexy is that it is often triggered by strong, generally positive emotions, but little is known about the neural pathways through which positive emotions trigger muscle atonia. We hypothesized that the amygdala is functionally important for cataplexy because the amygdala has a role in processing emotional stimuli and it contains neurons that are active during cataplexy. Using anterograde and retrograde tracing in mice, we found that GABAergic neurons in the central nucleus of the amygdala heavily innervate neurons that maintain waking muscle tone such as those in the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray, lateral pontine tegmentum, locus ceruleus, and dorsal raphe. We then found that bilateral, excitotoxic lesions of the amygdala markedly reduced cataplexy in orexin knock-out mice, a model of narcolepsy. These lesions did not alter basic sleep-wake behavior but substantially reduced the triggering of cataplexy. Lesions also reduced the cataplexy events triggered by conditions associated with high arousal and positive emotions (i.e., wheel running and chocolate). These observations demonstrate that the amygdala is a functionally important part of the circuitry underlying cataplexy and suggest that increased amygdala activity in response to emotional stimuli could directly trigger cataplexy by inhibiting brainstem regions that suppress muscle atonia.