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The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery
     

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery

4.4 9
by D. T. Max, Grover Gardner (Narrated by)
 

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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,

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The pacing and fascinating subject matter keep the listener fully engaged throughout…. [S]ide effects may include sleepless nights, caused by a strong desire to get to the next chapter." ---AudioFile
The stories read like Outer Limits plots: A Stone Age tribe in Papua New Guinea is decimated by a mysterious illness that afflicts its victims with laughter and then death. A noble Venetian family dynasty is cursed by a disease that turns them into insomniacs. Thousands of wild deer perish of starvation in high fields of grass. Unfortunately, these Ripley's Believe or Not-worthy episodes possess more than passing interest; they signal the advance guard of diseases that may lurk as time bombs around the globe. D. T. Max's The Family That Couldn't Sleep can be read as a fascinating study of brain proteins and neurological diseases or as a full-blast medical wake-up call.
Natalie Angier
In this gripping, cleanly written, cannily plotted and elegantly educational book, D. T. Max shows us what happens when the insomnia isn't ordinary and doesn't end, no matter how aggressive the medical intervention or generous the sedative prescription…the book brims with great tales, some tragic, others cautionary.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

An engaging nonfiction "medical mystery" starts with the strange case of an Italian family whose members, upon reaching a certain age, succumb to a sort of sleeping disorder that causes not only insomnia but certain death. The cause of this disease is determined to be prions—infectious agents derived from proteins, not viruses—so Max explores other prion diseases, such as mad cow disease and kuru, and delves into the history of prion research as a way of unraveling the mysteries behind the disease that's been plaguing the titular family for generations. Gardner lets the material do most of the heavy lifting by narrating in a plain, unadorned style that keeps his own contributions to the narrative minimal, the auditory equivalent of transparent prose. The pacing and fascinating subject matter keep the listener fully engaged throughout, resulting in an audiobook that will certainly be no cure for insomnia. In fact, it might even warrant an advisory warning: side effects may include sleepless nights, caused by a strong desire to get to the next chapter. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, July 31). (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400102891
Publisher:
Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
09/18/2006
Edition description:
Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"The pacing and fascinating subject matter keep the listener fully engaged throughout…. [S]ide effects may include sleepless nights, caused by a strong desire to get to the next chapter." —-AudioFile

Meet the Author

D. T. Max was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Harvard in 1984. He has been an editor at Washington Square Press, Houghton Mifflin, and "The New York Observer."

Grover Gardner was named one of the Best Voices of the Century as well as a Golden Voice by AudioFile magazine, and he has received over twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards. He has also won two coveted Audie Awards, as well as being a three-time finalist.

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Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
AardvarkGal More than 1 year ago
Engrossing, well-written accounts of prion disorders in various species. Those with even the most basic biological understanding will have no trouble grasping the science behind the afflictions described. Absolutely fascinating - I couldn't put it down.
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