By Dr Maa Touray
President Adama Barrow is a sleeping president — both literally and figuratively. Literally: as he is seen sleeping at almost every public meeting he attended. It is like every function he attends, once he sits down, he falls asleep. He has been reported to manifest such sleeping tendencies even before becoming president. And, having observed him over time in relation to his somnolence, I am inclined to believe that he is suffering from a medical condition called narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. As a result, narcoleptics often find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, regardless of the circumstances. They may fall asleep even if they are in the middle of an activity.
Its cardinal symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). EDS is characterised by persistent sleepiness, regardless of how much sleep an individual gets at night. It occurs like a “sleep attack” where an irresistible overwhelming sense of sleepiness comes on quickly without warning. As a result, a narcoleptic can fall asleep anywhere, anytime; especially in a monotonous situation. This tends to be the case in Barrow falling asleep at almost every meeting he attends in public. And, I am in no doubt he does a lot more at nonpublic sessions.
Another feature of narcolepsy is experiencing weakness and sudden loss of muscle control (cataplexy). This is triggered by intense emotions such as laughter, excitement anger, stress, fear or surprise. It is characterised by physical changes such as slurred speech to complete weakness of most muscles. It lasts for a few seconds to a few minutes. This might be what Barrow manifested in his famous Dr Ismaila Ceesay “where were you” statement, during which he was visibly angry, with part of it (the statement) being slurred (mumbled). In severe attacks, cataplexy can lead to total body collapse during which an individual is unable to move, speak or keep their eyes open. This can be misdiagnosed as a seizure disorder. This could be the reason for the speculation back in 2017 about Barrow suffering from epilepsy.
Some narcoleptics experience hallucinations that may occur at the beginning or at the end of a sleep period. These are often vivid and frightening. People with narcolepsy also tend to be obese which may be related to low metabolism.
What exactly causes narcolepsy is unknown. However, majority of cases, especially those with cataplexy, are found to have low levels of a chemical called hypocretin in the brain; which helps regulate wakefulness and sleep. These low levels are suspected to be as a result of loss of hypocretin producing cell in the brain due to autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders occur when the body’s immune (defense) system turns against itself and mistakenly attacks healthy cells or tissues. A rare cause of it has been attributed to brain injuries resulting from traumatic injury to parts of the brain that regulate wakefulness and sleep or from tumors and other diseases in the same regions.
Narcolepsy, as explained above, can greatly affect one’s daily activities. In addition to excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy, narcoleptics typically experience periods of drowsiness, tiredness and lack of energy. They may experience decreased alertness and focus throughout the day, and may experience memory problems—which could have been the case in Barrow not being able to remember Karamo Jadama’s name at a rally in Bakau.
And yes, the public does have the right to know the state of the president’s health. Although not every detail of it has to be necessarily made public.