The stories read like Outer Limits plots: A Stone Age tribe in Papua New Guinea is decimated by a mysterious illness that afflicts its victims with laughter and then death. A noble Venetian family dynasty is cursed by a disease that turns them into insomniacs. Thousands of wild deer perish of starvation in high fields of grass. Unfortunately, these Ripley's Believe or Not-worthy episodes possess more than passing interest; they signal the advance guard of diseases that may lurk as time bombs around the globe. D. T. Max's The Family That Couldn't Sleep can be read as a fascinating study of brain proteins and neurological diseases or as a full-blast medical wake-up call.
The Family that Couldn’t Sleep is a simultaneously fascinating and horrifying mix of history and science that’s colloquial and well-written enough to be accessible to non-scientists.
D.T. Max outlines the history of several prion disorders including FFI, Kuru and Scrapie, and also delves into the Mad Cow Disease controversy and its links to variant Creutzfeld-Jakob both in Europe and the United States. His coverage of Mad Cow in particular offers a great insight into the politics, rather than good sense, that often drives health policy. Max also ventures into early human history and the possible links between prions and our ingrained disgust for cannibalism.
In short, an interesting and gripping read for anyone who’s interested in the history, politics or mechanisms of modern science that will have you second-guessing your choice to order a cheeseburger.