CLOSE

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.

To subscribe to Dan’s daily email Now I Know, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter. 

Original image
iStock
arrow
Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
Original image
iStock

Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
Skipping Breakfast Could Be Bad for Your Heart
Original image
iStock

There are mountains of evidence supporting the claim that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting something in your stomach in the first hours of the morning can regulate your glucose levels, improve your cognition, and keep your hunger in check. Now new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to another reason not to wait until lunchtime to break last night’s fast. As TIME reports, people who skip breakfast are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers surveyed over 4000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 54 living in Spain. After looking at the dietary habits of each participant, they broke them into three groups: people who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in the morning; those who got 5 to 20 percent; and those who ate less than 5 percent.

The subjects who ate very little in the a.m. hours or skipped breakfast all together were 2.5 more likely to have generalized atherosclerosis. This meant that plaque was starting to collect on the walls of their arteries, hardening and narrowing them and increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. People who fell into the 5 to 20 percent calorie category were also more likely to show early signs of the disease, while those who ate the most calories in the morning were the healthiest.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Previous studies have shown a connection between skipping breakfast and health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and unwanted weight gain. A possible explanation for this trend could be that waiting several hours after waking up to eat your first meal of the day could trigger hormonal imbalances. The time between getting into and out of bed is the longest most of us go without eating, and our bodies expect us to consume some calories to help kickstart our energy for the day (drinking straight coffee doesn’t cut it). Another theory is that people who don’t eat in the morning are so hungry by the time lunch rolls around that they overcompensate for those missing calories, which is why skipping breakfast doesn’t make sense as a diet strategy.

But of course there are many breakfast skippers who aren’t motivated by health reasons either way: They just don’t think they have the time or energy to feed themselves in the morning before walking out the door. If this describes you, here are some simple, protein-packed meals you can prepare the night before.

[h/t TIME]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios