But when his human companion, Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, offers him a piece, the fabulous gift is a little too much for this little bouncing ball of fur. He takes a big sniff and staggers backward, struggling to ward off the attack paralyzing his muscles and pushing him toward sleep in just seconds. Watson has narcolepsy. And the disorder makes him fall asleep when life gets too exciting.
Narcolepsy is caused when the immune system mistakenly attacks specific parts of the brain that regulate wakefulness and dreaming. Dogs are believed to be the only species other than humans that can develop the condition. Stanford researchers, including Dr Mignot, found the cause in dogs by studying members of a narcoleptic dog colony. The last of the dogs, a beloved Schipperke named Bear, died last year.
But soon after, Mignot received an email from a veterinarian in the Northeast. He had a Chihuahua puppy that collapsed to the ground when he got excited. Did Mignot want him? Mignot and his wife decided to adopt the dog as a family pet, rather than research subject. They named the puppy after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick and IBM’s Watson computing project.
Watson is a hit with young patients. He calms frightened children and helps them understand their condition. The number of kids who suffer from narcolepsy is growing and some can develop severe symptoms, such as almost constant sleepiness or sudden episodes of muscle paralysis that occur with specific emotions. Mignot said Watson’s attacks can also be sparked by emotions, especially excitement.
But don’t worry: it sounds like Watson lives a pretty relaxing life. Mignot told KQED, “We often go to the beach and he runs around and loves to run around and very often, when he’s too happy – poof! – he collapses on the sand… [H]e looks at you with his eyes half closed and you have the feeling like he’s telling you ‘I love you,’ but in fact he’s falling asleep.”
Photo Credit: KQED