With my favorite TV Show, “The Walking Dead,” slated to return for Season 10 on Sunday, October 6 on AMC, and Halloween right around the corner soon after that, what better time than for a column on zombies!
Many survivalists have used the mythical “Zombie Apocalypse” as a teaching tool for preparedness, even the CDC itself has held “zombie drills,” and put out a “Zombie Preparedness Guide,” to help raise public awareness about the need to be prepared for pandemic outbreaks and natural disasters.
But are such efforts only tongue in cheek? Or could there ever be something like a real “Zombie Apocalypse.” It seems I am not the only one asking that question. In fact, there is an entire group of serious researchers who are studying the science of zombies.
The Zombie Research Society, (ZRS) is a group formed in 2007 which is committed to the “historic, cultural and scientific study of the living dead”. It includes hundreds of thousands of zombie devotees around the world, working in film, the military, and various scientific fields.
One of the founders and board members of ZRS is a Harvard trained psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Schlozman, who said his interest in finding a “scientific basis” for “zombism” started while watching a late-night screening of George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” with his wife. At the time his wife, now in remission, had breast cancer, and often could not sleep because of the chemo treatments.
“I started watching it, and I was thinking, ‘They’re sick. They’re not just ghouls stumbling around in this graveyard … They’re ill with something,'” Schlozman said.
He knew that he couldn’t cure his wife’s cancer, Schlozman thought, but maybe he could tackle the zombie problem. So he sat down and wrote a fake medical paper about zombies, which soon made the rounds on the Internet.
Now years later, Schlozman is known as “Dr. Zombie,” and the world’s preeminent expert on the science behind zombies.
What Could Make a Real Zombie?
In all of his talks and books about “science-based” zombies, Schlozman dispenses with the whole “living dead” idea. The idea of the dead rising is just too absurd to treat with any basis in scientific reality, however, Schlozman and his colleagues at ZRS have identified a number of neurological conditions and viruses that can cause the typical symptoms associated with “zombification.”
“As a physician, it’s nearly impossible to watch movies about zombies without diagnosing their obvious neurological problems,” says Schlozman.
“The first thing you would notice is a shuffling gait, difficulty walking, difficulty with balance, difficulty with knowing where your body is in space,” Schlozman said. Those problems would be rooted in the cerebellum, a region at the bottom of the brain responsible for motor skills and coordination, he explains.
“You’d also notice they’re not very bright,” he added. “They don’t seem to know what they’re doing.”
Those symptoms would indicate some kind of damage or abnormality in the frontal lobe, which also controls impulsivity Schlozman said. “You’ve never seen a hesitant zombie,” he noted.
The “undead” as typically depicted are not only dumb and lack impulse control, but they are also always shown to be angry and ravenously hungry. Which are two conditions that could also be linked to neuroglial disorders?
“The anger could be a sign of overexcited amygdalae, the pair of almond-shaped regions of gray matter deep inside the brain,” Schlozman said.
“The idea of being insatiably hungry and ill — that’s a hard one to pull off, but you can do it,” Schlozman said. “There are certain viruses and also certain lesions that can affect a region of the brain — the ventromedial hypothalamus — that affect satiety, and that affects the sense that you’ve eaten enough.”
According to Schlozman, most if not all, of the conditions and traits we typically see of zombies, can be linked to injuries or diseases of certain parts of the brain, and we know that there are viruses such as meningitis, encephalitis, and rabies, that can all be transmitted to humans, that can and do impact the brain.
In fact, the rabies virus most closely resembles the “zombie virus” that is usually depicted in most zombie movies and TV shows – particularly in terms of how it is usually transmitted – by the bite of an infected person or zombie.
There are also diseases of the brain such as mad cow disease, and it’s a human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, that are caused by prions, which are a kind of disease-causing mutant protein, smaller than a virus. There is also a very specific prion disease known as Kuru, which is found only among the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guiana, who practice ritualistic cannibalism by eating human brains! The disease is transmitted by eating infected brain tissue. It is inevitably fatal, but before death, it causes madness, tremors, slurred speech, a shambling gate (sound familiar?) and a kind of dementia that brings on uncontrollable laughter.
The fictional undead’s appetite for human flesh, and particularly for brains as portrayed in many zombie movies, make it seem very plausible that in real life, some kind of mutated infectious prion could cause a plague with victims exhibiting symptoms akin to the demented, cannibalistic zombies we see on the Silver Screen!
Zombies Do Exist!
As if the idea of a prion driven real-world “zombie” plague is not enough to give you nightmares, chew on this – real “zombies” do exist in nature!
There is a fungus that attacks insects, usually, ants, takes over their bodies and turns them into zombies. Once infected, this fungus essentially controls the ant’s body, forcing the infected ant to climb up high, when, like something straight out of “Alien” — it bursts out of the victim’s head and rains its spores down below to infect more ants in the colony and continue the cycle.
In order to grow and spread, this fungus must hijack the ant’s brain!
There are also several species of wasps that sting spiders and cockroaches, paralyzing them, and turning them into mindless slaves, while the wasp lays eggs inside of the other insect’s body. The infected insect remains alive but has no will of its own. When the larvae hatch, they devour the roach or spider which will not fight back since it is now a mindless zombie.