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The Village in Kazakhstan That Can't Stay Awake

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The village of Kalachi, Kazakhstan, is located in the center of the country toward the north (here’s a map). It is home to about 600 people, although about half of them are looking to move—before they suddenly fall asleep, perhaps for days at a time.

In the spring of 2013, approximately ten villagers ended up in the hospital, each with a similar set of symptoms—dizziness, memory loss, some loss of motor control.  But there was a stranger symptom common among these ten patients: Many reported conking out during the course of everyday tasks. And this wasn’t just a cat nap nor were these sleeping spells driven by fatigue. The patients simply fell asleep, without warning—and many of them slept for days, unable to be awoken.

The cause was a mystery. Other than the fact that they all lived in the same area, there were few other similarities among the patients. The malady affected both men and women. The patients ranged in age from 14 to 70. Some were students, others worked long hours, and still others had relatively light schedules. If there were any other clues, they went unnoticed—given the size and location of Kalachi, the outside world wasn't initially aware of, and thus, couldn’t send in the teams of researchers who would normally address such public health concerns. And then, in May of 2013, the sleeping sickness abated. Curiosity notwithstanding, any incentive to further explore the cause of these ten hospital visits disappeared.

Until the affliction came back in January of 2014. And then again that May. And again that August.

Increasingly, doctors and researchers have descended on Kalachi, trying to figure out what’s going on. One of the people struck by the August wave, a man named Viktor Kazachenko, spoke to reporters about the ordeal (relayed by The Guardian). On August 28, Kazachenko was driving his motorcycle to a neighboring town, with his wife riding along with him. He woke up in the hospital five days later, without any recollection of the intervening events. While he suffered no injuries from driving a motorbike while asleep—more likely a telling clue about the disease than a miracle—he told the media that he felt disoriented for weeks after he awoke. (His wife was entirely fine.) Kazachenko was probably more prepared for the after-effects of the sleeping sickness than others, because this wasn’t his first bout with the disease. He had previously fallen asleep for three days.

But despite repeat victims and, now, at least four different spells of the sleeping sickness, researchers have almost no idea what is causing this weird plague. As VICE reported, after more than “7,000 tests on patients and the town’s air, food, water, and general environment, no signs of bacterial, viral, chemical, radiological, or any other contamination have been identified.” There’s an old uranium plant which early reports believed could be the source of the trouble, but there is a village located closer to the mine than Kalachi whose residents haven't suffered the same effects. Besides, those living in Kalachi show no symptoms typical of uranium poisoning. At this point, even very rare causes, such as psychosomatic roots (i.e., mass hysteria), have been ruled out for various reasons. The only promising lead? As VICE noted, “outbreaks tend to accord with shifts from cold to warm weather.” But no one knows what, if anything, the temperature change has to do with the problem.

In total, more than 150 people have been struck the Kalachi sleeping sickness, and as the cause hasn’t been identified, there’s no reason to believe that the recurrences will end. Many of Kalachi’s residents are leaving town, hoping to escape whatever is making them and their neighbors fall asleep without explanation. But others want to stay in the only home they know, despite the dangers of contracting the mystery disease.

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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science
A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]

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