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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

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  •  
    Eve Noord-Holland, Netherlands 05-08-14
    Eve Noord-Holland, Netherlands 05-08-14 Member Since 2013

    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
  •  
    André ORLANDO, FL, United States 06-29-12
    André ORLANDO, FL, United States 06-29-12 Member Since 2011

    I love AUDIBLE! I never get mad at traffic jams and can listen to many different books, despite of my short time.

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    "Interesting, scary"

    I learned a lot of prion from this book. The story is good and the writer tries to entangle the other kinds of prion disease. It's not just about the family that couldn't sleep. I hope that there will be a cure for prions soon.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Betty A. Wright Sugar City, ID United States 04-26-12
    Betty A. Wright Sugar City, ID United States 04-26-12 Member Since 2008

    pony rider

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    "I lost sleep over this one!"

    Wow, I had no idea how much prions affected our world! From cannibals, to mad cows, to inherited conditions. Mad cow hit the head lines and we all learned some, but this book exposes and explains the stories behind the headlines, and why these diseases are so scary. Nothing graphic, good language, highly recommend this book to all interested in disease, science, and a good listen.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kimberly Tennessee, USA 10-11-10
    Kimberly Tennessee, USA 10-11-10
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    "Fascinating, haunting and sometimes humorous"

    There is a family of disorders that eat away the brains of their victims, whether they are humans or livestock. I know, sounds depressing, but the search for the cause of these disorders is utterly fascinating. There are enough personal stories to make it feel a bit like a novel at times, but it is actually a true scientific detective story. There are brilliant and odd scientists, conflicted and disorganized governments, and some deeply sad and touching personal stories. There are also enough ironic and even humorous moments to keep things from ever feeling too heavy. I particularly liked hearing that a researcher had for years kept a flock of infected sheep on the roof of a London hospital. I've been passionate about reading up on these prion diseases for years, and I still found lots in this book that was new to me. I've shared this book with people who were unfamiliar with prions, and they have found it captivating and easy to understand.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    05-18-10
    05-18-10 Member Since 2010
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    "Very good book"

    This was a great book. It had very good information and was well written. Fascinating biological information was expressed thoughtfully. I have a degree in biology and still felt that the information was in depth, but would be appropriate for any listener.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Caryl SPRING VALLEY, MN, United States 05-07-10
    Caryl SPRING VALLEY, MN, United States 05-07-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Wow a whole new issue to be aware of"

    Sneaky the way this author gets us into the world of virus disease, but persuasive.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Linda B Northeast USA 05-15-09
    Linda B Northeast USA 05-15-09 Member Since 2008
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    "Very well done!"

    The reader did an amazing job with this book! It almost felt like a novel a times, partly due to how well the reader did his job. The stories are incredibly compelling and the science is completely accessible and fully explained and very interesting. I cannot imagine a way to die that is more terrible than FFI - the prion related disease that robs victims of their ability to ever fall into sleep. And in the exposition of this disease and its history, is woven the development, history, and scientific exploration of all prion diseases. On top of that, there is a personal feel, as though you are reading the diary or memoir, since the author suffers his own afliction which, for the author, was the motivation for looking into these orphan diseases. If you are not into science/medical stories, this may not appeal... but if you have any interest, this is very, very well done.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 11-14-07
    Michael NAPERVILLE, IL, United States 11-14-07 Member Since 2005
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    "Title is a misnomer"

    The title of this book and the medical mystery it implied intrigued me and I was excited to listen to it. It wasn’t long before I felt that the title of the book was a misnomer. I would be surprised if there was one hour of cumulative time on the discussion of the Italian family who “couldn’t sleep”. A more apt title would be something like, Prion Disease: A History of Discovery in Animals and Humans. But then, who's going to read that?

    The book dealt more with the study of prions—the smallest known infectious agent which is a naturally occurring protein molecule that lacks nucleic acid. It is these prions that are at the root of this family’s illness called Fatal Family Insomnia (FFI). It starts with sweating and constricted pupils the size of pin points and ultimately prevents family members with FFI from sleeping, leading to death. Members of this family have a 50/50 chance of passing this hereditary illness on to their offspring.

    The majority of the book discusses the history and pathology of such prion-related diseases such as mad cow disease in cows, scrapies in sheep, kuru in humans (cannibal-related), Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome and Alzheimer’s and NOT the subject of the book as titled.

    Everyone knows how horrible Alzheimer’s is with the loss of mind that accompanies it. Just imagine how awful it would be to have Alzheimer’s but you still know what is happening to you. That is what it is like for this family. FFI is horrendous and rare (only 40 families in the world have it) and it is this rarity that prevents the needed money being allocated to it for researching its cure.

    It’s a sad family story, but again, and disappointingly so, the "family" is minor player in the saga. It was an okay book if you’re looking for a medical mystery but it was not what I had signed on for. The author had me at title but I still felt mislead on this one from the beginning.

    6 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 04-19-09
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 04-19-09 Member Since 2005
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    "You Won't Sleep"

    D. T. Max has written a biography of sorts about a family plagued by insominia. The malady remained a mysteria from the 1760s when it was first reported to the 1990s when it was recognized as a genetic disorder. Max, a gifted science writer, empathetically illuminates the story of the afflicted family by linking it to the English mad-cow epidemic, medical and biological theory, and related issues.

    Ultimately, I look for books that inform, are well written and well read. This book fills the bill on all three counts. I picked it up for the discipline of learning about topics outside my field of reference. I was not disappointed.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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