Sleep center director adopts narcoleptic companion

Watson, a narcoleptic Chihuahua, helps Stanford physician explain sleep disorder to children — and brings plenty of laughs as well.

Watson, a narcoleptic Chihuahua, gladly accepts a piece of pork.
Becky Bach

When Bear, the last member of Stanford’s colony of narcoleptic dogs, died last year, Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, thought he was done keeping dogs with the chronic brain disorder. At least for a while.

But soon after Bear’s death, Mignot’s phone rang: A dog breeder in the Northeast had a chihuahua puppy that collapsed to the ground when he got excited. Did Mignot want him?

Bear had left a big hole in his heart, and in the home he shared with his wife, Servane Briand. But he felt he just wasn’t ready for a dog. And although he had previously discovered a gene that triggers narcolepsy in some dogs, his research direction had shifted: He was now trying to document the link between the immune system and narcolepsy in humans. Briand, too, was reluctant to adopt a new dog.

But the dog needed a home, and, Mignot asked himself, who better than an expert on canine narcolepsy to care for the animal?

He flew to Vermont last spring and, once he met the wriggly, black-and-white puppy with a few brown splotches, the decision was made.

Now, Watson — named after the character in Sherlock Holmes fiction, the IBM computer personality and the geneticist — is in California, reveling in the life of a pampered pooch who just happens to fall asleep when he gets excited. 

A hit with children

Although Watson is a bit shy around newcomers, Mignot takes him into the clinic when he treats children with narcolepsy, a growing population that can develop particularly severe symptoms, such as almost constant sleepiness or sudden episodes of muscle paralysis that occur with specific emotions. 

Mignot, who is also the director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, can trigger one of Watson’s cataplexies by proffering certain foods, especially Whole Foods roast beef, or playing with the dog.

Bending down, cooing to Watson in French, Mignot (a native of France) got ready to give the dog a piece of pork. Watson took a big sniff and staggered backwards, struggling to ward off the attack that was paralyzing his muscles — pushing him toward sleep in just seconds. He recovered slightly, climbing to his feet and lunging for the food.

Sometimes Watson’s attacks are quick, other times they occur repetitively, Mignot said. His former narcoleptic dog, Bear, predictably had sleep attacks when he saw any kind of new food, even broccoli, but Watson is a bit more variable, suffering attacks when Mignot arrives home from work or when he spots a favorite toy, Mignot said.

Watson’s entertaining performance can calm frightened children and help them understand their condition, Mignot said.

In humans, narcolepsy is caused when the immune system attacks certain neurons in the brain. These neurons produce a peptide called hypocretin that helps promote wakefulness and inhibits dreaming. Some dogs have that type of narcolepsy as well, although others have a genetic form that stems from a mutation in the hypocretin peptide receptor gene. Watson is a family pet and has not undergone any kind of genetic testing, so Mignot doesn’t know what type of narcolepsy he has. 

The Stanford narcoleptic dog colony, started by sleep pioneer William Dement, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, allowed Mignot to discover the genetic basis for canine narcolepsy and helped to enhance understanding of the human condition, which affects about 1 in 2,000 people.

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