• The Family That Couldn't Sleep

  • A Medical Mystery
  • By: D.T. Max
  • Narrated by: Grover Gardner
  • Length: 8 hrs and 45 mins
  • 4.2 out of 5 stars (467 ratings)

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The Family That Couldn't Sleep

By: D.T. Max
Narrated by: Grover Gardner
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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)

What listeners say about The Family That Couldn't Sleep

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

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.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

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.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

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.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

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 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

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 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

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.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Fascinating

look into the frightening world or prion diseases.

3 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

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.

2 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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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.

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Zombie science

I picked this right after starting the short-story anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns (zombie fiction sometimes blames prions) on Kindle. Fun connection. As to this book, it was a great story, interesting science, kept a good pace, and gave me pause (yet again) about eating factory-farm meat...

2 people found this helpful