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The real life Neuroscience of Zombies

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From the Walking Dead to World War Z, pop culture has taught us all we need to know about the looming threat of the undead rising and this Halloween we'll be taking a look at the real-life neuroscience behind the cognitive deficits of a Zombie as well as how such a disease would find its way to spread across the globe in a hypothetical epidemic.

Neuroscientists Verstynen and Voytek have spent a lot of time examining what goes on in the brain of a zombie and have even co-written a book on them. To understand the processes and physiology of the zombie brain we take a look at their characteristic features and how each one of them can be explained using neurological principles and disorders.

The constant insatiable hunger that zombies experience is said to be likely due to a loss of function in the hypothalamus which is the area of the brain predominantly involved in hormone release as well as regulation of thirst, hunger, fatigue, sleep and temperature.

Their hunger leads them to hunt humans and when they do so they walk as if they suffer from spinocerebellar ataxia, a disorder caused by damage to the cerebellum resulting in "halting walk with slurred speech and balance problems", which is exactly how zombies act.

When they do hunt, they are only able to focus their attention on what's in their direct field of vision and not their periphery. They'll be aware of the victim running in front of them but not the Zombie hunters hiding in the corner. These symptoms are experienced by patients with Bálint syndrome that reduces spatial attention and perceptual awareness.

However, not all zombies are the stereotypical slow moving ones; Verstynen and Boytek hypothesised that some zombies are faster than others likely due to having suffered less damage in their brain. The "resurrection hypothesis" states that just like when the brain has a short supply of oxygen, the longer you go on being deprived of it the more damage you will sustain.

Next, we ask ourselves why zombies are unable to recognise people from their past and why, if you were a zombie too, you'd be likely to eat your own family without a second thought. The most plausible explanation is that they have prosopagnosia (face blindness) as well as retrograde amnesia, likely from a loss of function in the hippocampus.

To a zombie, every day's the same and every person is a meal for them to chomp down and it's not like you could reason with them because zombies are very impulsive and emotionally disrupted beings.

Filled with rage, they probably suffer from an injury known as Papez's circuits, which connects different areas of the brain and is involved in emotional memory formation. Persistent sleep disturbances manifest as "chronic insomnia" creating their “waking delirium state”.

They are also, (obviously), unable to express themselves in anything other than grunts and moans which indicates that something's gone awry in their arcuate fasciculus, the brain region in charge of language as well as Broca's area which is linked to speech production.

By applying neuroscience to study the physiology of a zombie they have constructed a model of the zombie's brain. Possibly offering the first formal diagnosis of the disease coined: "Consciousness Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or CDHD".

If Zombies are suffering from neural and cognitive deficits, the question remains: how would this illness or infection spread? We have already discovered parasites capable of bringing organisms back from the dead and using them as hosts.

 

The zombie fly Apocephalus borealis lays infects honey bees by laying eggs and taking over their body. While infected, the bees exhibit zombie-like behaviours until they eventually die and fly larvae burst out from their heads.

Viral and bacterial agents are good candidates for the spread of the Zombie infection but there's a third more surprising suspect: Fungi.

According to an article published on Gizmodo, fungi are known to infect humans and exist in symbolic relationships with other systems. In fact, fungi can create their own networks to gather and transport chemicals and this could potentially work within the nerves and blood vessels of a dead body.

Through the ingestion, inhalation or transmission of spores via a bite, they can find their way into the blood and remain there until the right conditions allow them to start growing.Once the host is dead, the fungi can take over brain circuits and regions to control basic functions and transmit signals to the rest of the body.

A scene from the videogame The Last of Us

A scene from the survival-horror video game The Last of Us for PS4

That's right, exactly like in Naughty Dog's popular Zombie game: The Last of Us, which took inspiration from a real-life fungus called "Corcydeps" which uses ants to complete its life cycle by zombifying them and ultimately leaving nothing but the exoskeleton shell.

In the game, the fungus is able to jump from host to host just like viral diseases and is responsible for turning humans into violent, blind Zombies known as "clickers", which similarly to their ant counterparts will start out their life cycle until it's time for the spores to burst out and fully transform them from "runners" to full-blown Zombies.

Finally, is there a need for concern? No, and even through Zombies are fiction that doesn't mean we can't get something out of studying them. They give us the chance to learn more about Neuroscience, which is exactly what Verstynen and Voytek intended when they wrote their book.

This Halloween, you're better off spending your time worrying about more realistic threats to the human race like Global Warming or Pollution caused by oil drilling, rather than Fungal Zombie infections.

Happy Halloween, let us know what your thoughts on Zombie neuroscience are in the comments. Who's excited for The Last of Us 2?

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