Familial Fatal Insomnia is a disease where the sufferer loses the ability to sleep. It affects about 40 families worldwide, and a parent with the disease has a 50% chance of passing it on to their child. There are no symptoms until later in life, typically around the age of 50 (although there have been at least seven cases involving patients in their twenties) when the patient suffers insomnia and progressively loses the ability to sleep, which leads to delusions, hallucinations, and a phenomenon called ‘Confabulation’ – where they create imaginary experiences to compensate for loss of memories. The sufferer degenerates over a period ranging from 5 – 44 months with an average of just under one year.
There is no cure or prevention method, and in fact sleeping pills only speed up the deterioration of the brain. Wikipedia tells of a man who was placed in a medically induced coma as physicians tried in vain to allow his brain to rest – but even being in a coma did not prevent the degeneration of the man’s brain.
The disease is like a family curse; in fact, one Italian family has been afflicted with it for two centuries, with doctors only realising in 1990 what was causing the bizarre afflictions that had stalked the family across the generations. Their story is told in a book by DT Max, which is appropriately called “the family that couldn’t sleep”. As the symptoms do not onset until late in life, people with the gene live perfectly normal and healthy lives until the gene decides to kick in, and nobody can predict when exactly that will happen. You’ll know when you stop being able to sleep. The gene itself affects one single protein in the brain – just one – but it turns out to be one that is essential. So next time you go to sleep, take a minute to consider yourself lucky!