Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery” as Want to Read:
The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery

3.88  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,438 Ratings  ·  328 Reviews

For two hundred 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

Hardcover, 336 pages
Published September 5th 2006 by Random House (first published January 1st 2006)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Family That Couldn't Sleep, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Family That Couldn't Sleep

The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonSalt by Mark KurlanskyStiff by Mary RoachThe Professor and the Madman by Simon WinchesterThe Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing
67th out of 1,117 books — 1,682 voters
Stiff by Mary RoachThe Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonSalt by Mark KurlanskyEats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne TrussThe Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
You Read a Book about What?
56th out of 1,118 books — 513 voters

More lists with this book...

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Lynne King
I reread this review today (1st March 2014) that I wrote last year because a friend, of a friend of mine, has died from Prion's disease and has lost two siblings in the past year. How dreadful...I must reread this book.

* * * * * * * * *

I have a problem and it concerns books. If I see a title that sparks my curiosity, I must have it. I can normally keep this under control but then an enemy was unleashed in the form of my Kindle Paperwhite in February 2013. As a consequence, one click on Amazon a
Apr 20, 2011 Cindy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cindy by: Petra
Prion diseases are freaky! That little bits of proteins could mis-fold, and that topological change could decimate a brain is just bizarre. One of the facts I was most surprised by is that prion diseases have three methods of infection: genetic, direct contact (i.e. eating or touching infected tissue), and spontaneous (i.e. a protein accidentally misfolds in the body). No other disease vector can spread via all three methods like prions. They are freaky disease superstars!

The Italian family in t
Jan 13, 2014 Eve rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2014
Prions. Before reading The Family That Couldn't Sleep, I had no idea what those were. Since finishing this book, I've developed an equal sense of respect and fear of them. "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." How's that for a mouthful?

At the center of this book is a Venetian family with a deadly leg
Anita Dalton
The family that could not sleep is a family in Italy that suffers from a disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia. There are several other families in the world affected by the condition, so it is extremely rare. It is a condition that strikes family members generally in late middle age and causes them to begin to lose physical control of their bodies as they stop sleeping. They sweat, they develop a very distinct pinprick appearance to the pupils in their eyes, they stop sleeping, and in end stag ...more
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Feb 02, 2015 Paquita Maria Sanchez rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: truthiness
Seriously terrifying.
Nov 14, 2007 Grumpus rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, audiobook
This is based upon the audio download from [].

Narrated by: Grover Gardner

Like a smart consumer in the market for electronics, appliances or cars, I research my purchases by looking up recommendations on Consumer Reports. When I am looking for a good book to read, I turn to my trusted source for reviews—Goodreads. Based on member recommendations, I know going in that the book I choose will more than likely receive a higher than average rating from me. You guys have never let me do
Nov 04, 2009 Richard rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Readers of Non-fiction Science and Medicine
Recommended to Richard by: Down to a Science Science Café

Every time I donate blood (and I've donated well over ten gallons) I'm asked whether I've spent at least three months in the U.K. prior to 1996 (c.f.). This is because of what we all called "Mad Cow Disease" and what the medical folks now call Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD).

This book is poorly titled. Certainly, the horrible fate of an Italian family brings immediate human pathos to the story of prion diseases, but the more pressing story for many of us will be the atrocious practices i
Mar 05, 2010 Trena rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone, Social Scientists Interested in Science
This book ranks with A Short History of Nearly Everything and Animals in Translation as one of the best pieces of science writing I have ever read and I highly recommend it to everyone.

The book covers all aspects of prion diseases, the most famous of which is Mad Cow Disease (aka Bovine Spongiform Encepholopathy). I have a sort of superiority complex fascination/horror with BSE; as a vegetarian for the past 17 years I feel relatively safe from it. Prions are especially terrifying foodborne illne
May 13, 2007 Gina rated it it was amazing
I'll try not to give 5-star ratings willy-nilly, but this was a pretty amazing family biography, spanning centuries' worth of generations and shedding light on a variety of subjects through the lens of this bizarre and incredibly rare genetic disease. Agriculture, attitudes toward disease, the relationship between science and doctors, the mysterious biological function of sleep, international politics, economic competition and, of course, personal profiles of the afflicted. The drama of the curr ...more
Petra X
May 05, 2015 Petra X rated it it was amazing
This stunning book is about a very rare inherited neurological disease which strikes in middle age and one of whose main symptoms is the inability to sleep which quite quickly leads to death. The book is written in a very readable way and follows one family, the main family who suffer frm this terrible disease.
I enjoyed this book, but there's one part of it I don't understand. If you can point out what I'm missing please do so - it's been a while since I studied genetics.

The book says that the gene encoding the "prion gene" involved in CJD/kuru/FFI has two alleles. One codes for a methionine at a particular site and the other codes for a valine in the same position. If you have two copies of the same allele, one maternal and one paternal, you are homozygous. If you have one of each kind, you are heter
Apr 07, 2009 Lsexton rated it really liked it
You, too, will have trouble sleeping after you read this book.

This is a true-medicine thriller that leads the reader through the investigation of prion diseases, with surprising revelations along the way. The mysteries include a wasting brain disease that plagues an Italian family for generations, an epidemic of a similar disease called "kuru" found in a remote tribe in New Guinea; and the origins of prion diseases in sheep and cattle.

The book also introduces us to the scientists who are resear
Dec 05, 2014 Kristin rated it it was amazing
Sadly, I waited a week to write my review, when I should have written it immediately upon completing the book when I was full of emotional and intellectual reactions to the ideas contained in the book. With that said, I HIGHLY recommend it, as it's a fascinating read, and despite the topic being rather academic, it reads almost like a novel. Very well written.

The book is basically about protein diseases (almost all of which are brain-based, if not all?). It focuses on one where the prion protein
Nov 19, 2014 Kate rated it it was ok
Shelves: health, science
I learned a lot about prion diseases from this book, but it suffers from some major issues:

1. It is poorly organized. The chapters alternate between telling the story of the "family that couldn't sleep"--an Italian family suffering from Fatal Familial Insomnia, or FFI--and covering the history of prion diseases & research. That would be fine on its own if there was still some kind of timeline holding everything together, but there isn't: one chapter will discuss prion research from 1970-2004
Jan 07, 2012 Emma rated it it was amazing
I first studied prion disease in a virology class during my last year of university. I must have enjoyed them because it was one of the only topics that kept my attention and prevented me from daydreaming like I usually did during that class. Because of this, I was familiar with the disease FFI (fatal familial insomnia). I find it so interesting that there are people who literally can't sleep. I know insomnia affects millions and decreases quality and quantity of sleep, but sufferers of FFI lite ...more
Talulah Mankiller
Apr 22, 2010 Talulah Mankiller rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 18, 2007 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2007
This account of prion-based spongiform encephelopathic diseases covers a lot of ground: the Italian family of the title suffering from FFI (fatal familial insomnia), the mysterious epidemic of kuru among the Fore tribe of New Guinea, eventually linked to the practice of eating their dead ancestors' brains, the rare genetically transmitted Creuzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), various animal spongiform encephelopathies, from scrapie in sheep to mad cow disease to chronic wasting disease in deer. All of ...more
Jamie Collins
Feb 26, 2012 Jamie Collins rated it really liked it
An interesting book about the discovery of the cause of prion diseases, such as “mad cow” disease and the fatal familial insomnia which afflicts the titular Family. The book meanders around quite a bit, and ends with a chapter about the author’s own neurodegenerative disorder.

We learn the history of the Italian family whose members are at risk of dying a horrible death in middle age - long after they have already passed the genetic defect on to some of their children. It’s a little disturbing to
Sep 30, 2015 Rossdavidh rated it really liked it
Subtitle: A Medical Mystery. The family of the book's title has a curse worthy of a novel from Poe or Lovecraft. Around middle age or later, apparently healthy men and women (going back at least six generations) will first notice that their pupils are constricted to tiny points, and that they have trouble sleeping. As the disease, for which no treatment is known, progresses, they will become ever more desperate for sleep, and unsurprisingly (perhaps in part as a result) less and less sane. The d ...more
Claudia Piña

Ya había estudiado los priones antes y por supuesto el Insomnio Familiar Fatal es algo que se estudia siempre en Psicofisiología cuando se tratan temas de sueño. Me habría gustado tener este libro entonces, porque de forma sencilla describe lo básico que hay que saber sobre el tema.

Habla de lo que son los priones, las historia de su estudio y las enfermedades que se pueden producir por ellos, tanto en animales como en personas. Todo llevado con el hilo conductor de la famosa familia italian
Mar 01, 2015 anaïs rated it it was amazing
Terrifying and fascinating history of prion diseases (mad cow, creutzfeld jakob, fatal familial insomnia, etc) that focuses not only on this Italian family who has suffered generation after generation from FFI but the research and people who have been a part of getting closer to figuring out these truly horrifying diseases. Great read and surprisingly riveting for being about proteins.
Ixel Santos
Apr 15, 2014 Ixel Santos rated it liked it
This book was great! Especially how it gave tons of details over the prion diseases, how the people died because of the prion diseases, and I especially loved how I felt like I was apart of the scientists. I really enjoyed how I felt like I was experiencing/watching a person with the prions. This book was a great medical mystery! I kind of expected the Venetian family to actually not even want to do anything because of the prions... The family took the news better than I have expected. The infor ...more
Laura Dalton Wilson
Nov 09, 2015 Laura Dalton Wilson rated it really liked it
Fascinating and frightening. intetesting.
Clark Hays
May 28, 2014 Clark Hays rated it it was amazing
Cannibalism, madness, wasting diseases and pedophilia

A grim, satisfying look at a terrifying condition largely ignored, and largely of our own making.

This is an exquisitely researched and ultra-readable medical mystery thriller focused on prion diseases. They are awful diseases that cause stabbing pains, loss of muscular control, sweating, insomnia, madness and death. It’s an especially poignant read because the author has a degenerative disease as well, giving him a tragically appropriate vanta
Aug 27, 2014 Alaina rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science
I was excited to read this book after hearing about the Italian family that is the framing device. It's such a strange disease, so I can see why the author used that as the hook. That said, the book is not really about this family and doesn't include a lot of material on fatal familial insomnia. It is more about prion diseases in general, and the discovery of prions. With so little information about the Italian family and FFI, I would have preferred that the author just not include them at all, ...more
Jul 18, 2008 Renee rated it really liked it
A fascinating collection of stories and medical cases about various inflictions ranging from a Venetian family whose generational insomnia led to the death of multiple family members to case studies of those affected with Mad Cow Disease. A very interesting look at Prion and how its symptoms are often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. A clear history of Prion diseases and our attempts to understand them have been given in this book.
Oct 06, 2010 Melissa rated it liked it
Fatal familial insomnia is my favorite medical disorder because it's so creepy & inexplicable. Now I think I'll have to include all prion diseases in as well. Unkillable, ineradicable, misfolded proteins that eat your brain. If you liked that X-Files episode where the workers at the chicken plant all went nuts because they were cannibals, you may like this book. It certainly provides one with yet another reason not to eat a hamburger.
Oct 08, 2014 BL834 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
3.5 stars, rounded up because I learned stuff. Mostly stuff I'd rather not have known because misfolded prions are the stuff of nightmares.

As others have pointed out, the book is more about the history of the discovery of prions and the researchers involved, with the titular family only taking up a portion of the text. You can't really blame Mr. Max for choosing a more interesting title than "Prions: A History" though.
Jul 08, 2014 EJR rated it it was amazing
I really liked this book! I feel like I learned quite a bit about prions... I will probably continue to stay away from red meat. It was fascinating to learn about the inherited prions which I knew nothing about. The information on the animal-related prions was really interesting... shows how much we don't know, and how long it takes to start working on research/putting the pieces together.
Dec 14, 2015 Jen rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Although it wanders off into tangents often, this is an excellent book on the history of prion diseases. I have to say though, that after reading it I have little to no faith in the government's ability to protect our food supply. It may help to go vegetarian long before you read this book. Just ew.

I do hope that considerable resources are dedicated to solving the mysteries of protein misfolding. There are still so many questions.

One particular thing that struck me about the Italian family wit
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 99 100 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • The Woman with a Worm in Her Head: And Other True Stories of Infectious Disease
  • The Medical Detectives
  • The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco
  • Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body
  • Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service
  • The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History
  • The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug
  • The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox
  • Polio: An American Story
  • Pox: An American History
  • Virus X
  • Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce
  • The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery
  • The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera
  • Pox: Genius, Madness, And The Mysteries Of Syphilis
  • A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities
  • Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
  • The Deadly Dinner Party: and Other Medical Detective Stories
D.T. Max is a staff writer for the New Yorker. He lives outside of New York with his wife, two small children and rescued beagle who came to them named Max. He is the author of The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery (Random House) and Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking), to be released in paperback in September 2013.
More about D.T. Max...

Share This Book

“Protein, so far as we know, does not replicate itself all by itself, not on this planet anyway. Looked at this way, the [prion] seems the strangest thing in all biology, and, until someone in some laboratory figures out what it is, a candidate for Modern Wonder. (quote originally by Lewis Thomas)” 4 likes
More quotes…