Photo/IllutrationKensuke Makihata, left, a sufferer of narcolepsy, talks with Masashi Yanagisawa, a neuroscience researcher, in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, on March 20. (Shinichi Mishima)

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Prefecture--When he was in elementary school, Kensuke Makihata would often suddenly doze off in class and in cram school.

Even at meals, the boy's head would often slump back and he would fall asleep. But after being diagnosed with narcolepsy, a rare sleep disorder, he's persevered through his condition.

The 18-year-old became a first-year student at a medical department of a university in western Japan earlier this month after battling his disorder, which can suddenly make a sufferer severely drowsy at any time and place.

Makihata, who graduated from a private junior and senior high school in Hiroshima in March, visited a renowned sleep researcher on March 20 to tell him that he had passed the entrance examination to medical school.

"Congratulations. You did a great job," said Masashi Yanagisawa, 58, a professor of neuroscience and director of the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine under the University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba.

Yanagisawa had encouraged Makihata to overcome his condition.

Makihata told him, “I want to become a doctor to fill my father’s shoes.”

Makihata would often fall asleep in class when he was younger, and his mother, Ikuko, 46, would repeatedly scold him.

But she thought there might be something medically wrong with her son when he dozed off with his head tilted backward while at the dinner table.

Makihata was diagnosed with narcolepsy at the Ehime University Center for Sleep Medicine in Toon, Ehime Prefecture, in the autumn when he was a first-year junior high school student.

Due to the disease, from which one in 1,000 people is believed to suffer, as new neuropeptide orexin cannot be produced in the brain, a state of wakefulness cannot be maintained.

While seated, narcolepsy sufferers are unable to stop from dropping off to sleep for durations ranging from a few minutes to several tens of minutes, which can occur many times a day.

After learning that his condition was caused by narcolepsy, Ikuko felt somewhat relieved. But Makihata's father, Kiyoshi, 52, who is a doctor, braced himself for dealing with his son's condition, thinking, “Something difficult has occurred.”

Narcolepsy is not well known because it is not a life-threatening disease. But it was difficult for Makihata to be roused from his slumber by his classmates during classes or ceremonies.

Makihata could not easily explain the reason of his sleep tendency to his friends, as he was afraid of being told, “That is nothing different from just being sleepy.”

Even though Makihata took medication to alleviate his symptoms, his condition continued. No drug has been discovered that offers a permanent cure for narcolepsy.

Kiyoshi is the third-generation operator of a medical clinic in an island in the Seto Inland Sea, and had hoped that his son would someday take over its operation.

Makihata used to tell his father in his early childhood that he wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. But as the boy became obsessed with just getting through his classes, both somewhere along the line stopped talking about the future.

When Makihata attended a lecture given by Yanagisawa in Tokyo in the summer when he was a second-year high school student, their meeting changed his life.

Yanagisawa, the doyen who was solving the mystery of sleep, had discovered orexin and clarified the mechanism of narcolepsy. For such achievements, he has been repeatedly cited as a possible recipient for a Nobel Prize.

During the lecture, Yanagisawa invited Makihata up to the stage to tell the audience about his painful experiences with narcolepsy.

Makihata asked Yanagisawa, “Is there any patient who suffered from the disease and passed an entrance examination of a medical school?”

Yanagisawa replied, “I know of such a person.”

His answer surprised and delighted Makihata, who at the same time still found himself unable to look to the future for reasons of his disease. After that, Makihata started to study hard, aiming to take an entrance examination to a medical school.

“I have no choice but to just live with my disorder," Makihata told an Asahi Shimbun reporter. "I would like to optimistically keep living through thinking that the disease is a valuable unique part of me instead of giving up.”