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The Scientific Roots of the Zombie Threat

Just for the fun of it, we take a look at what science has to say about how to induce a stupor and the effects of eating brains.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Preparedness, the federal agency that bills itself as "your online source for credible health information" released a guide to preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

The point, for the CDC, was to raise awareness about the upcoming hurricane season, and encourage people in vulnerable areas to have flashlights and food and water on hand. As one spokesman told Reuters: "If you prepare for the zombie apocalypse, you'll be prepared for all hazards."

But is there any scientific foothold for the idea of a zombie apocalypse?

The zombies of popular culture have their roots in vodou (or voodoo). In his somewhat sensational The Serpent and the Rainbow, the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis wrote about the case of Clairvius Narcisse who was put into a drug-induced coma-like state, easily mistaken for death, and later brought "back to life," but without full self-awareness. The right combination of drugs have, in the past, created zombie-like behavior.
Merely ingesting psychotropic flora and fauna, though, might not be enough to set off a mass zombie apocalypse. This requires the power of belief—and words and symbolic actions can and do have measurable effects on our bodies. Or, as the nocebo expert Clifton Meador told the New Scientist, "Bad news promotes bad physiology. I think you can persuade people that they're going to die and have it happen."

And a zombie apocalypse could certainly be facilitated by a food-borne brain-wasting prion, or proteinaceous infectious particle. As Ryan Bradley explains on PopSci:

The first famous prion epidemic was discovered in the early 1950s in Papua New Guinea, when members of the Fore tribe were found to be afflicted with a strange tremble. Occasionally a diseased Fore would burst into uncontrollable laughter. The tribe called the sickness “kuru,” and by the early ’60s doctors had traced its source back to the tribe’s cannibalistic funeral practices, including brain-eating.


We generally don't eat the brains of fellow humans (and there's even some debate about cannibalism as the source for kuru), but what about other flesh? Infectious agents in the animals we raise for chicken wings, pork chops, and hamburgers sometimes jump to humans, as SARS, swine flu, and mad cow disease have shown.

Theoretically, a viral prion could make its way into the brain and, provided we were administered some baking soda to prevent the prion's spread, make us very hungry:

So there is a region of the brain that's responsible for letting you know when your stomach's full. We ignore it all the time, you know, on Thanksgiving and things like that. But the ventromedial [VNM] hypothalamus, which is a region of the brain that sits below the thalamus, basically receives signals from your stomach and from your GI tract that tells you that you've had enough and it's time to stop eating... So in mice that have had the anterior ventromedial hypothalamus ablated surgically, they'll just eat and eat and eat and eat until they die, basically.


All of this is, of course, very unlikely, but taking steps to prevent a zombie apocalypse might have some real public-health benefits. There are implications here for obesity research, the perils of feeding cattle the processed remains of other animals, and the future of food-borne pathogens.

More importantly, it demonstrates how simply believing that something will be good for you can make it genuinely good for you, which certainly plays an intrinsic role for labeling foods that actually changes our habits. So perhaps when it comes to eating (and not just eating brains), a seemingly nonsensical post should be taken seriously.

Top image by Olly Moss via Threadless. Top image ©Paul Ahern. Photo of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease via CDC. Bottom diagram by Erin Boyle via "The skinny on neurotrophins" ©2003 Nature Neuroscience.

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