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The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery

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Grover Gardner

9 Hours 0 Minutes

Tantor Media

September 2006

Audio Book Summary

For two hundred years a noble Venetian family has suffered from an inherited disease that strikes their members in middle age, stealing their sleep, eating holes in their brains, and ending their lives in a matter of months. In Papua New Guinea, a primitive tribe is nearly obliterated by a sickness whose chief symptom is uncontrollable laughter. Across Europe, millions of sheep rub their fleeces raw before collapsing. In England, cows attack their owners in the milking parlors, while in the American West, thousands of deer starve to death in fields full of grass.

What these strange conditions-including fatal familial insomnia, kuru, scrapie, and mad cow disease-share is their cause: prions. Prions are ordinary proteins that sometimes go wrong, resulting in neurological illnesses that are always fatal. Even more mysterious and frightening, prions are almost impossible to destroy because they are not alive and have no DNA-and the diseases they bring are now spreading around the world.

In The Family That Couldn't Sleep, essayist and journalist D. T. Max tells the spellbinding story of the prion's hidden past and deadly future. Through exclusive interviews and original archival research, Max explains this story's connection to human greed and ambition-from the Prussian chemist Justus von Liebig, who made cattle meatier by feeding them the flesh of other cows, to New Guinean natives whose custom of eating the brains of the dead nearly wiped them out. The biologists who have investigated these afflictions are just as extraordinary-for example, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a self-described 'pedagogic pedophiliac pediatrician' who cracked kuru and won the Nobel Prize, and another Nobel winner, Stanley Prusiner, a driven, feared self-promoter who identified the key protein that revolutionized prion study.

With remarkable precision, grace, and sympathy, Max-who himself suffers from an inherited neurological illness-explores maladies that have tormented humanity for centuries and gives reason to hope that someday cures will be found. And he eloquently demonstrates that in our relationship to nature and these ailments, we have been our own worst enemy.

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Reviews

  • Pamela Buchheit

    I learned so much from this book. Max takes you on an exploration through time, and depicts how FFI originated. He uses a lot of expressional terms, which made the book easy for me to recall later. The book isn't just about "the family who couldn't sleep." He describes FFI, kuru, scrapie, and mad cow disease. He describes what each of these mean, where they orginated, and gives plently examples and stories of its victim's. Then he ties them all together at the end, to explain how they are related, through prions. Very well written. I learned a lot! I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning something fascinating.

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  • France Langelier

    Very intriguing, extremely scary, and well written. Doesn't come across as a scientific journal.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent book - full of easy to understand science, interesting history and politics behind newer diseases.

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