Monday, October 29, 2007

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, by D. T. Max

You’d think after reading The Ghost Map that I’d had enough of books about diseases. But no, apparently not. The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is about prion diseases, and unlike The Ghost Map, which is largely historical, this book talks a lot about the current state of prion diseases including Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, which you can get from eating beef from cows infected with BSE, or Mad Cow disease.

However, much of the book focuses on a disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI), an inherited prion disease which has plagued one family in Italy for hundreds of years. The story of this family, and their confusion, shame, and heartache as their members are repeatedly misdiagnosed (alcoholism, schizophrenia, encephalitis), and then die, is sad and fascinating. It turns out the FFI prions kill the parts of the brain that control sleep; eventually sleep is impossible for the victims and they die of exhaustion.

Max uses this story as a jumping off point for investigations into all sorts of prion diseases, including kuru (caused by eating dead humans infected with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease!), and scrapie, a disease of sheep that makes them itch so badly they scrape off all their wool trying to scratch. Weird. No more disease books for me, at least for a while.

(Book 48, 2007)


Kathleen said...

As mentioned before, I love books about strange diseases, I find them very interesting. Thanks for the review.

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