As the popular TV show “The Walking Dead” is heading to its exciting mid-season climax, scientists have found a real “zombie virus” that can and does infect humans – and you may already be infected and not even know it!
According to researchers who look into the real world processes of zombification, there are countless number of parasites which have the ability to “zombify” their hosts. Theoretical evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis of Arizona State University, who runs the “Zombified” podcast, said these parasites can control their hosts to essentially do whatever they want. Prof Aktipis said, “If you actually look at the proportion of species overall that are parasitic in one way or another, more than half of the species that we know on Earth are parasites.”
One of Aktipis’ favorite examples is the Ophiocordyceps fungus, which affects the carpenter ant. Once the fungus gets inside of the ant, it takes over the body forcing the ant to leave its colony. It that makes the ant climb a branch above the colony, and lock its jaws in place there. While immobilized in that position, the fungus continues to grow inside of the ant – until in something akin to the movie “Alien,” it bursts out of ant’s head, raining spores down on the colony to infect more ants, completing the lifecycle.
As of that scenario is not creepy enough, Aktipis and his team said that a similar phenomenon is also infecting humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 40 million Americans carry a single-cell parasite called toxoplasma gondii.
Research has shown that the parasite can infect rats to make them attracted to cats’ urine. Once the rats get close, the cat eats them and then as humans interact with cats, such as cleaning their litter tray, the parasite can then infect a person.
Prof Aktipis said the parasite “somehow evolved to make a rat get turned on by the smell of cat urine, so it goes up to a cat and snuggles with it, and then it gets eaten which completes the life cycle of the toxoplasma”. He asked, “If that’s not zombification, then what is?”
A Real World Zombie “Rage Virus?”
In the “28 Days Later” movie franchise, what is turning people into zombies, is something called the “Rage Virus.” In infected humans, as toxoplasma gondii parasites build up in the system, it has been known to cause an uncontrollable “zombie-like” rage. Research has linked several cases of road rage and other inexplicable extreme bursts of anger to Toxoplasma gondii infections. Researchers from the University of Chicago said that people who have been exposed to the parasite are more than twice as likely to have short bursts of anger and increased aggression.
The parasite, which burrows into brain tissue, is fairly common, with about 30 percent of all humans carrying it but it is typically harmless – and that is why you could be infected with toxoplasma and not even know it –until a related outburst.
However, the study found that it may be leading to heightened anger in short bursts, such as road rage. Dr. Emil Coccaro, the lead author of the study, said, “Our work suggests that latent infection with the toxoplasma gondii parasite may change brain chemistry in a fashion that increases the risk of aggressive behavior.”
Coccaro did not say, however, if his research discovered if the infection also leads to a taste for human flesh. Although, there were reports last year of a Florida man, who attacked and ate the faces of several victims. It is not known if he was infected with the parasite or not.