What Is Fatal Insomnia?

by Emma Cueto

Here's something you never wanted to know: there is in fact a type of insomnia that can kill you. So what is fatal insomnia? Besides, of course, one of the most unsettling phrases in the English language that you wish you could unread but never can? Well, the good news is it's rare at least, so try not to let it keep you up at night. Because, you know, that could kill you.

In a nut shell, fatal insomnia is a type of insomnia that runs in families (it's official name is familial fatal insomnia or FFI), and it typically proves fatal a few years after symptoms emerge. As far as scientists can determine, it is most likely caused by a genetic mutation which causes damage to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus is responsible for all sorts of things, including sleep and possibly body temperature, so symptoms of the disease are wide-ranging, from sweats to tremors to impotence to constipation. But the most significant is lack of sleep.

People with FFI are unable to enter a type deep sleep called slow-wave sleep, which is what helps restore your brain by releasing cerebral-spinal fluid and helping to flush out any toxins or debris. So it's kind of like having a type of brain damage that causes further brain damage. And ultimately, the lack of sleep kills you.

Terrifying, right?

We all know that sleep is important. Without it, crazy things begin to happen. But for most people, if you try to stay awake for too long, eventually you hit a point where you fall asleep no matter what. But apparently for people with FFI, no matter how hard you try to get a good night's sleep, it just won't happen. And for those people, sleep deprivation doesn't just cause things like poor decision making — it kills you. Usually in 8 to 72 months after symptoms begin.

So how do you know if FFI runs in your family? Well, fortunately, it's incredibly rare. And it's also not the most subtle of diseases — people tend to notice if you die of sleep deprivation. So if no one in your family has a history of that, then you should be good.

But you know, it might hurt to take a nap right now, just to make sure.

Image: Giphy