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The Mystery Behind a Kazakh Town’s Sleeping Sickness

In 2013, the residents of Kalachi, a small village in Kazakhstan, began to take to their beds with a mysterious illness. They couldn’t stop falling asleep. When they woke up, often days later, they remembered nothing. Newspapers (and mental_floss) called it a “sleeping sickness” (unrelated to the African sleeping sickness transmitted by flies) and multiple investigations into the causes—patients’ ages and schedules, the town’s air quality, the food and water people were consuming—turned up nothing. But after years of study, the Kazakh government thinks it has figured out the underlying cause of the outbreak. Maybe. 

The first reported case of the sleeping sickness came in 2010, in a neighboring village. In 2013, the mystery took on new urgency as eight different people from Kalachi (a town of just 640) fell asleep over one weekend, unable to stay awake for any longer than it took to go to the bathroom or eat a little food.

When these otherwise healthy adults finally awoke from their trances, they didn’t remember anything that had happened, even the times when they had seemed awake enough to eat or talk or have a cigarette, as BuzzFeed reported during a week-long investigative trip to the region. One man even woke up in the Kazakh capital of Astana, unable to remember being on the plane that brought him there. People felt nauseous and dizzy; they hallucinated, ranting about images only they could see and at times becoming borderline violent. More than 100 people fell ill at some point. Even a cat was affected. 

This happened again and again over the course of several months, with waves of residents falling prey to the sickness in the beginning of 2014, then later that spring, then again that summer. The nearby uranium mines were a likely culprit, and scientists tested the earth, water, and local food for radon, a gas known to cause cancer. The air was tested for carbon monoxide. People’s hair and fingernails were tested for radiation. Doctors could find nothing wrong with the patients, and no factors to tie them all together. 

Were people being poisoned? Or was it just a case of mass psychogenic illness (essentially mass hysteria), like the “dancing plague” or the numerous population-wide panics throughout history over shrinking penises?

Finally, in the summer of 2015, authorities announced that they had discovered the culprit: high concentrations of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons coming from the mines caused a lack of oxygen in the air in the area. By the time the announcement came in the summer of 2015, 150 people had already moved away, while another 240 were on a list of people seeking resettlement. Still, a radiologist who had been studying the outbreak told BuzzFeed that the verdict was “only the working theory,” and that researchers were still studying the medical anomaly. In late December of that year, scientists from the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan confirmed this explanation.

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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
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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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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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