The Boy Who Couldn’t Put Down the Book about the Family that Couldn’t Sleep

13 Mar

During my trip to Vegas, I finally got around to reading the book The Family that Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max.  From a lay perspective, Max traces the science behind the prion, the infectious agent behind, among other things, Mad Cow disease and Kuru.  Since prions are made up of only proteins, they challenge some of our basic assumptions about biology and infectious diseases. 

Max begins his tale with a story about of a middle-age Venetian man who, in 1795, suddenly began suffering from an strange and fatal malady marked by incurable insomnia.  Over the next two-hundred years, many of this man's descendants also found themselves suffering from the "family's curse" — death from incurable insomnia at middle age.  The cause of their death was
frequently misdiagnosed as encephalitis to alcohol withdrawal until the early 1990s when their disease was recognized as a rare genetic form of prion disease named fatal familial insomnia. From here, Max then interweaves the history of prion dieases including the mad-cow epidemic, odd deaths among New Guinea aboriginals, and scrappie in European sheep herds. Max ultimately uses this fascinating history to suggest a radical theory: early humans may have been nearly wiped out by a plague spread by cannibalism, which also made us resistant to prion diseases today.

Bottom Line:  I highly recommend this book.

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