From Publishers Weekly
An engaging nonfiction "medical mystery" starts with the strange case of an Italian family whose members, upon reaching a certain age, succumb to a sort of sleeping disorder that causes not only insomnia but certain death. The cause of this disease is determined to be prions—infectious agents derived from proteins, not viruses—so Max explores other prion diseases, such as mad cow disease and kuru, and delves into the history of prion research as a way of unraveling the mysteries behind the disease that's been plaguing the titular family for generations. Gardner lets the material do most of the heavy lifting by narrating in a plain, unadorned style that keeps his own contributions to the narrative minimal, the auditory equivalent of transparent prose. The pacing and fascinating subject matter keep the listener fully engaged throughout, resulting in an audiobook that will certainly be no cure for insomnia. In fact, it might even warrant an advisory warning: side effects may include sleepless nights, caused by a strong desire to get to the next chapter.
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From The New Yorker
Beginning with the story of an Italian clan whose members die of a mysterious inability to sleep, Max traces science's tortuous path toward understanding prion diseases—a category that includes scrapie in sheep, B.S.E. in cows, and kuru, a disease spread by cannibalism which decimated one New Guinean tribe. Victims of fatal familial insomnia lose control of neuromuscular function, existing in a merciless limbo between sleep and wakefulness until they die of exhaustion. For a half century, prion diseases have baffled scientists, because the transmission of illness by proteins, which are non-living, was considered impossible. Max, who suffers from a distantly related neuromuscular disease, narrates recent advances in prion science with engaging clarity. But, as he reflects ruefully, "the neurologist can diagnose you but he can't cure you."
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Framed by the story of one genetically cursed Italian family, The Family That Couldn't Sleep is a true medical mystery. D. T. Max, who conducted investigative research and interviews, has written a gripping, spooky, educational, and readable book with vast historical and geographic sweep, from 18th-century Italy and England to 1950s New Guinea. Its strong point is the dual focus on the Italian family's genetic legacy and the scientific discovery of prion diseases. The book wanders when it strays from these subjects, and Max milks too much sympathy for his Italians. Yet if Max stresses that scientists still have a long way to go to alleviate the threat of prions to humans, he also gives reason for hope.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
Just when you thought you were familiar with most of the really unusual medical ailments, along comes fatal familial insomnia (FFI), which has afflicted one Italian family for two centuries. The disease strikes in middle age. Symptoms include profuse sweating, constipation, impotence, and sudden onset of menopause. Eventually the body, deprived of sleep, begins to shut down. Fifteen months after the first symptoms appear, the patient dies. The brutal thing about FFI is that, while a lot is known about its effects, very little is known about its cause or its treatment (if there is a treatment). The book is like a nonfiction version of a Michael Crichton novel: an enigmatic illness, a family in jeopardy, a race against the clock to find a cure. Max, a science journalist, uses FFI as a springboard to tell a broader story about the history of fatal diseases for which cures are desperately needed, such as Parkinson's and mad cow. It would be a mistake to call this book "entertaining"--it's too unsettling and scary for that--but it's certainly very timely and compellingly written. David Pitt
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