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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.

Critic Reviews

"Very timely and compellingly written." (Booklist)

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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!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Thomas
  • NAPERVILLE, IL, United States
  • 07-03-13

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-

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Teri
  • United States
  • 08-31-07

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!

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Tammy
  • Portsmouth, RI, USA
  • 03-02-07

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.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

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.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

Fascinating and terrifying

Prion diseases are now my worst nightmare. This is much scarier than any horror story I have ever read, and it's all true. I am amazed by how little we know about these diseases and how to treat them, even now.

Prions are not a virus or a bacteria, but you can catch them. They are not genetic, but prion diseases run in families. You can't kill them because they aren't alive, but they propagate and spread quickly, invading and destroying. Prions are the most interesting, terrifying, and fascinating diacoveries of modern science.

This book explores them, and it tells several stories about various prion diseases all over the world, throughout time. The story is well written yet approachable, even for such a scientific, difficult to understand topic. The narration is fine, not particularly bad or amazing. The book is dry in some parts, but that's to be expected given the subject matter.

This was interesting enough that I might even consider listening again. However, it didn't quite go deep enough for my taste, and I found myself still wanting more by the end. I also wish it had periodic updates to reflect new discoveries in the field.

My review is not a synopsis of the book, but rather my opinion of it. I received a free copy of this audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review

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  • ANDRÉ
  • ORLANDO, FL, United States
  • 06-29-12

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.

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  • Story

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.

  • Overall

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.

  • Overall

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.