The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery

FTCSCoverFor many, the prospect of going without sleep for months is a nightmare. Fatal Familial Insomnia means just that. The disease strikes in middle age, with symptoms including sweating, impotence and the sudden onset of menopause. 15 months after the symptoms appear, the patient dies. Very little is known about the disease’s cause or treatment. Members of one Italian family experienced the horror of fatal familial insomnia for two centuries. D.T. Max’s The Family That Couldn’t Sleep details their saga with the disease and their race to find a cure. To help the family that inspired The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, please visit


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“This is a riveting detective story that plumbs one of the deepest mysteries of biology. The story takes the reader from the torments of an Italian family cursed with sleeplessness to the mad cows of England (and, now, America), following an unlikely trail of misfolded proteins. D. T. Max unfolds his absorbing narrative with rare grace and makes the science sing.”
—Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire

“Much has been written about prions and mad cow disease—nearly all of it worthless. Thankfully, from the world of journalism comes D. T. Max to set things right. Throw all those other ‘mad cow’ books in the trash: This is the book to read about prions—or whatever you want to call them. It’s a riveting tale, told by someone with a very special understanding, derived in part from his own strange ailment. Find a cozy spot, clear your schedule, and dive in.”
—Laurie Garrett, author of Betrayal of Trust and The Coming Plague

“D. T. Max deftly unfolds the mysterious prion in all its villainous guises. Although scientists do not fully understand these proteins—how they replicate and wreak such havoc in their victims’ brains—this book reveals their historical, cultural, and scientific place in our world. Prepare to be enlightened, entertained, and frightened.”
—Katrina Firlik, M.D., author of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe

“D. T. Max has combined the enthralling medical anthropology of Oliver Sacks with the gothic horror of Stephen King to produce a medical detective story that is as intelligent as it is spooky. Always fascinating—how could it not be, with characters that include cannibals, mad cows, and an Italian family cursed by fatal insomnia?—Max’s book is also a gripping account of scientific discovery and a heartfelt meditation on what it means to be afflicted with an incurable, and brutal, illness.”
—David Plotz, author of The Genius Factory 

“A great book . . . D. T. Max has drawn the curtain on a cabinet of folly and malady that will stagger your imagination.”
—Philip Weiss, author of American Taboo