Hypocretins or orexins (Hcrt/Orx) are hypothalamic neuropeptides that are synthesized by neurons located mainly in the perifornical area of the posterolateral hypothalamus. These hypothalamic neurons are the origin of an extensive and divergent projection system innervating numerous structures of the central nervous system. In recent years it has become clear that these neuropeptides are involved in the regulation of many organic functions, such as feeding, thermoregulation and neuroendocrine and cardiovascular control, as well as in the control of the sleep-wakefulness cycle. In this respect, Hcrt/Orx activate two subtypes of G protein-coupled receptors (Hcrt/Orx1R and Hcrt/Orx2R) that show a partly segregated and prominent distribution in neural structures involved in sleep-wakefulness regulation. Wakefulnessenhancing and/or sleep-suppressing actions of Hcrt/Orx have been reported in specific areas of the brainstem. Moreover, presently there are animal models of human narcolepsy consisting in modifications of Hcrt/Orx receptors or absence of these peptides. This strongly suggests that narcolepsy is the direct consequence of a hypofunction of the Hcrt/Orx system, which is most likely due to Hcrt/Orx neurons degeneration. The main focus of this review is to update and illustrate the available data on the actions of Hcrt/Orx neuropeptides with special interest in their participation in the control of the sleep-wakefulness cycle and the regulation of energy homeostasis. Current pharmacological treatment of narcolepsy is also discussed.
Keywords: Posterior lateral hypothalamic area, hypocretin neurons, orexin neurons, perifornical area, sleep-wakefulness, food intake
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