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The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery | [D.T. Max]

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery

For 200 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. What these strange conditions share is their cause: prions.
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Publisher's Summary

For 200 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. They include 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.

©2006 D.T. Max; (P)2006 Tantor Media, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"Very timely and compellingly written." (Booklist)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.0 (278 )
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Performance
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  •  
    David Ithaca, NY, USA 11-04-06
    David Ithaca, NY, USA 11-04-06 Member Since 2005
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A great scientific mystery"

    This has become one of my favorite non-fiction books on audible. If you enjoyed "Splendid Solution", "The Great Influenza" or "Germs" you will love this one. It may not have the humor or entertainment value of "The Omnivore's Delimma" but the author does a fine job of weaving personal stories with science to create a fascinating story. This is a great introduction to Mad Cow and other prion diseases, and also provides a distrubing account of how governments bumble their way through such outbreaks.

    Grover Gardner also performs another excellent reading. In my opinion, Gardner is by far the top narrator for any material that has any scientific or technical content. His voice moves gracefully over the text - always with the right nuance and pronunciation - allowing the listener to become quite captivated by the story.

    11 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bibi Eagle River, AK, United States 03-24-10
    Bibi Eagle River, AK, United States 03-24-10 Member Since 2008
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    "Very entertaining and enlightening"

    Wonderfully written account of prions: the diseases associated with them; the nobel laureates who study them; people affected; and how the problem began, was discovered, and has spread. Like a PBS special and a novel rolled into one, you learn quite a bit while being thoroughly entertained. A page turner.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jennifer Hudson, WI, United States 05-27-09
    Jennifer Hudson, WI, United States 05-27-09 Member Since 2009
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    "Quite informative"

    I know others have put down this book because it isn't just about the life of the family that couldn't sleep. True, it is a book about prions, and tells of all of the research in many fields and into many disorders. But, scientific though it is, it really is facinating and quite easy to follow along with and understand. The reader does have a bit of an annoying habit of ending every sentence the same way with a strange inflection, but you'll get used to it, or at least learn to ignore it.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Teri United States 08-31-07
    Teri United States 08-31-07 Member Since 2007

    I'm an obsessive reader of science fiction, psychological thrillers, and anything that might distract me from the misery that is exercise.

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    "A pleasure to hear"

    This book is a wonderful piece for people interested in the medical field. It offers a wonderfully accessible explanation of prion diseases combined with a human touch and a fabulous narrator voice. Highly recommended!

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    julie RANCHO CORDOVA, CA, United States 11-03-13
    julie RANCHO CORDOVA, CA, United States 11-03-13 Member Since 2012

    julie and the kids

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    "a fatal insomnia"
    Where does The Family That Couldn't Sleep rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    among the top books i have listened to on audible


    What other book might you compare The Family That Couldn't Sleep to and why?

    epigenetics


    What about Grover Gardner’s performance did you like?

    well researched, up to date, and narratives that bring you to understand the lives affected by those afflicted with prion disease.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

    a fatal insomnia


    Any additional comments?

    a unique historical perspective on a rare inherited genetic disorder that strikes its victims with symptoms of a lethal insomnia in their most productive years. Also, tied into this narrative of the familial disease, is its link to the prion disease of mad cow, or CJD. The research documented by D.T. Max, brings to light cases of individuals affected by CJD that has occurred in the U.S. and the U.K. which can only be explained prions from contaminated beef. That the threat still exists, and human cases are being suppressed by the USDA, should make anyone concerned about the potential impact of circulating prions in our beef supply.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pam James Lawrence, KS United States 08-24-13
    Pam James Lawrence, KS United States 08-24-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Prion Drama"

    It is surprising how fascinating a medical mystery can be. I was hanging on every word. I was terrified, but still could not stop listening.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 08-29-09
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 08-29-09 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "Fascinating"

    look into the frightening world or prion diseases.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tammy Portsmouth, RI, USA 03-02-07
    Tammy Portsmouth, RI, USA 03-02-07
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    "Great book"

    Any one with a family member with a disability that is neurological in origin will appreciate this book. The author's final chapter says it all. Great narrator.

    3 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eve Noord-Holland, Netherlands 05-08-14
    Eve Noord-Holland, Netherlands 05-08-14

    I live, breathe, read.

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    "Ay caramba!"

    Prions. Before reading The Family That Couldn't Sleep, I had no idea what those were. Since finishing this book, I've developed an equal sense of respect and fear of them. "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." How's that for a mouthful?

    At the center of this book is a Venetian family with a deadly legacy of Fatal Familial Insomnia dating back to the 1700s. FFI is a disease that strikes its victims in middle age, and causes complete insomnia, exhaustion, and eventual death within a matter of months. Max, himself a victim of a degenerative neurological disorder, expounds on the history of prions, theories on their origins, and the culminative affects on peoples and lands throughout the world. Cast your mind back to the Mad Cow Disease scare in Europe, or even the first cases of scrapie among sheep in Europe in the 18th century; these can be linked back to very bad little prions.

    I really enjoyed the break down of scientific terms and I especially loved the history part. I find that I almost always enjoy the style and flow of books that are written by journalists, which is probably why it put me in mind of Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan and Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff. A great read whether you're scientifically inclined, or just along for the adventure ride! Another plus: I now kinda understand the scientific references Amy Farrah Fowler, a fictional neurobiologist on the show The Big Bang Theory, periodically makes to her research work. Winning!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Thomas NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 07-03-13
    Thomas NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 07-03-13 Member Since 2012
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    "Great Book - Made Protein Chemistry Fascinating!"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    If you have any interest in science please; please enjoy this book-


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    The favorite is the saddest-


    What does Grover Gardner bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    The inflection in his voice was perfect for setting the tone and carrying it-


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    This book is interesting and a bit frightening with the history of animal to human disease transmission


    Any additional comments?

    I loved reading 'The Disappearing Spoon' and 'The Poisoner's Handbook' and this book feels a little bit like that-

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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