The Family That Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max
A Medical Mystery

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Synopsis

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.

 

About D.T. Max

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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. For the past eight years, he has reported mostly for The New York Times Magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle named Max.From the Hardcover edition.
 
Published September 5, 2006 by Random House. 336 pages
Genres: Health, Fitness & Dieting, History, Professional & Technical, Political & Social Sciences, Religion & Spirituality, Literature & Fiction, Science & Math. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for The Family That Couldn't Sleep

The New York Times

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Today, fatal familial insomnia, as it was named in 1986, is believed by many researchers to belong to the same class of disorders as mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and chronic wasting disease, and its peculiarities may well shed light on neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases li...

Sep 02 2006 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

The New York Times

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D. T. Max investigates the horrors of faulty prions, from fatal insomnia to mad cow disease.

Oct 08 2006 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

The Guardian

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The Family That Couldn't Sleep: Unravelling a Venetian Medical Mystery by DT Max 336pp, Portobello, £17.99 Strung out across the plains of northern Adriatic Italy lives one of the unluckiest families in the world.

Sep 01 2007 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

The Guardian

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The Family That Couldn't Sleep: Unravelling a Venetian Medical Mystery by DT Max Portobello £17.99, pp299 We live in the age of the prion, says New York writer DT Max in his introduction to this neat little medical whodunit.

Sep 23 2007 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

Book Reporter

A prion disease is an illness caused by a protein that has become deformed.

Jan 21 2011 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

Bookmarks Magazine

Emily Carter Roiphe New York Times 3 of 5 Stars "Mr. Max, who himself has a neuromuscular disorder loosely related to the diseases he describes, wants to make a few political points about the relationship between prion diseases and government agricultural policies.

Aug 21 2007 | Read Full Review of The Family That Couldn't Slee...

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