The Village in Kazakhstan That Can't Stay Awake

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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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Emery Smith
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."

Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.


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