The Family That Couldn't Sleep
D. T. Max
A Medical Mystery
On Sale: September 5, 2006
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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, 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.
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
“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
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.
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