A handful of families are cursed with “fatal insomnia,” a cruel disease that leads to months of sleepless nights. The BBC asks: Will a controversial cure save their lives?

Silvano eventually referred himself to the University of Bologna’s sleep unit for further study, but he was under no illusions about the course of the disease. “He said, ‘I’ll stop sleeping, and within eight or nine months, I’ll be dead,’” one of his doctors, Pietro Cortelli, told me in a phone interview.

“I said ‘how can you be sure?’ He then drew me his genealogical tree from the 18th Century, all by heart.” In each generation, Silvano could name family members who had succumbed to the same fate.

As Silvano had predicted, he died less than a couple of years later, but he left his brain to science in the hope that it might shed some light on the strange disorder that had plagued his family.