Fatal Insomnia


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By Tria Thalman
Producer/Director

Fatal Familial Insomnia

One of the greatest challenges in producing this film was locating families that suffer from Fatal Familial Insomnia. It’s a disease that devastates families, passing from one generation to the next with frightening tenacity. For these families, it’s the elephant in the room – everyone knows it’s there but no one wants to talk about it. This shroud of silence, even amongst themselves, is a common theme found within all the families. Not only does the disease have implications for individual health and longevity but it also carries serious consequences for the children of those affected, so the prospects for marriage can be reduced. Naturally, few are willing to go on camera to expose their situation. All our attempts to reach out to families overseas who have the disease were unsuccessful. We are therefore extremely grateful to the two American families who were prepared to participate and share their very personal stories with us.

Sleeping Ducks

We first heard about the sleeping ducks in an excellent edition of NPR’s RadioLab. Scientists at a University were studying sleep in ducks when they noticed something interesting with their ducks in the laboratory. The ducks tended to sleep in a row. The ducks at the center of the group slept with both eyes closed, while those on the end of the line kept one eye open. The individuals on the end of the line favored the eye that was facing out, as if they were keeping an eye out for predators. When a mirror was placed alongside, giving the impression of an extension of the line in the opposite direction, these ducks favored the opposing eye. Studies to measure the brain waves in these sleeping ducks revealed that when the left eye was closed, the right side of the brain was sleeping, and vice versa. So the ducks were able to rest their brain half a hemisphere at a time. This unihemispheric sleep only took place during slow wave sleep.

Our goal with Niels Rattenborg of the Max Planck Institute in Germany was to capture this same behavior in the wild. Niels accompanied us to the shore of a lake in Hershing, where he had often witnessed ducks settling down to sleep at sunset. The use of a long telephoto lens enabled us to film extreme close ups of ducks sleeping with one eye open, one eye closed. As the camera was rolling, Niels watched alongside on a monitor and provided running commentary as the ducks switched hemispheres and intermittently fell into REM sleep. It was wonderful to see and hear his excitement as we captured this behaviour in the wild in beautiful close ups. He’s now hoping to use this footage in his lectures on avian sleep.

Working with Animals

For once the old adage “Never work with animals” proved false. There is a scene in the film that I knew I wanted to capture but never imagined I would have any success. It involved one of my most feared animals – the rat. In this scene the narration describes the effects that prolonged sleep deprivation has on the health of terrestrial mammals. The context is prisoners who are forced to stay awake as part of their interrogation process. But, understandably, much of the scientific research has been conducted on rats as opposed to humans. So the concept was to visually link a rat with a prisoner in his cell. Finding the prisoner was easy: actor Paul Flippin made a very convincing sleep deprived subject, having just flown in across country late the night before. And the location – underground cells in the basement of a remote cabin in Pennsylvania – was surely home to a healthy population of rats, one of which could have been trapped. But there was no way I wanted to inflict an angry wild rat on myself or Paul.

A quick phone call to a professional animal handler revealed that working with a trained rat for the day would cost $500, something that was well beyond the reach of the budget. So as a final resort we purchased a small brown domesticated rat from the local pet store. These rats, at $5 a piece, are bred to feed to pet snakes. But this one was about to become a star. She got her own cage, was plied with tropical trail mix of the finest quality, and was driven in style from Washington DC to the film set in rural Pennsylvania.

Nugget, as she became named, could not have been more pleasant to work with. She executed her moves perfectly, scurrying around the cell and crawling over Paul’s bare feet in the spine-tingling way that only rodents do. By the end of the shoot she was the darling of the crew. Tears were shed as the team parted ways. Cameramen vied with sound techs over who would get to take Nugget home. Cell phones sprang into action as calls were frantically made seeking permission from spouses to return home with a pet rat in tow. Alas, it was not meant to be. The shrieks and profanities that ensued led everyone to conclude that perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea after all. So little Nugget, her moment of glory passed, was quietly returned to the pet store.

So if you happen to see some TV-types sporting National Geographic gear peering longingly into the window of the local pet store, murmuring the word Nugget over and over, you’ll know why.

Panama and the Small Plane

Everything was set for our shoot in Panama, my first job field directing.  The researchers were ready with their knowledge, the camera equipment through customs, the crew ready to go, there was only one thing that stood in my way.  A very small ‘‘island hopper“ plane.  I get very nervous on big regular sized planes, and this tiny six seater plane was far from that.  We had a special charter flight to take us from Panama City to the island of Bocas del Toro, so we could film a study going on about sloth sleep in the wild.  It is ground breaking research as it’s the first time a wild animal’s sleep habits are being studied in the wild, and not in captivity.  I knew I must face my fear for the sake of television. We met the captain, and loaded the gear.  I took a deep breath and got into the back of the plane. And you know what?  The flight was great.  Beautiful views, and a smooth ride. I knew working for National Geographic would expand my horizons, I just didn’t realize I would be flying towards them.

Explorer‘s “Fatal Insomnia” airs Tuesday, April 27 at 10P et/pt.