Zombies: A Neuroscientist’s Perspective

Could Zombies Exist In Real Life?

Virus, biological weapon or even space spoors… it’s fun to speculate on the ways a Zombie outbreak could really happen.

Whatever the root cause, it’s clear that the agent would have to significantly alter our brain function to turn us from living, breathing humans to ferocious zombie’s

Our brains are an incredibly complex highway of neuronal cells, that communicate at a rapid pace by way of electrical signals and the release of hormones, also known as neurotransmitters. It only takes a matter of seconds, a microscopic change, a biochemical shift, if you will, to completely alter the way that we process information, respond, and behave to external stimuli. So I thought it might be interesting, to take a look at chemical catalysts that might spark the transformation from a typical person to flesh-eating zombie. And the different areas of our brain that might be changed, once we succumb to the inevitable zombie apocalypse!

Zombie Brains Explained

According to a Neuroscientist friend (when asked for fun – perhaps the pair of us need to get out more!) a zombie apocalypse could be hinging on the next receptor superagonist. Errr, a what now?

Here comes the science bit… stick with it!

For non-nerds, a receptor is a protein molecule, usually found embedded within the plasma membrane surface of a cell. The agonist is a substance which can bind to a receptor and initiate a physiological response. Including it turns out a change in behaviour.

Just one molecular compound with 100% binding affinity to its receptor could permanently change the majority of neuronal activity and completely prevent voluntary choice. So there’s your traditional Haitian zombie right there!

What about other types of zombie behaviour?

Well, there’s Molecule X. Molecule X is a rogue calcium molecule. During experiments, scientists (when will they ever learn!) found that with the help of a little pressure and electrical charge, it would bind to its intended receptor, and then release neurotransmitters unceasingly. Unlike the calcium ion that will become dislodged as the electrical gradient is neutralized, Molecule X does not let go!

This abundance of neurotransmitter can completely shift the function of the limbic system, which is ultimately responsible for feelings of hunger, alertness, and mood control. Too much neurotransmitter could be the difference between your high strung toddler terrorizing the cat, and the creation of ravenous zombies.

Let’s hope there aren’t any mad scientists, or bond baddies out there playing around with these things for nefarious purposes!

More Things to Worry About…

Aside from chemical catalysts that might spark the transformation from a typical person to flesh-eating zombie, we could look at exactly which areas of the brain are potential targets for the development of zombie-like behaviour.

The Hypothalamus

Someone interested in such a thing might start by looking at the hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system and is perhaps one of the most resourceful and versatile components within the brain. It is responsible for a myriad of different functions ranging from temperature regulation to hunger and thirst. Interference with the hypothalamus could potentially alter someone’s memory or ability to store new memories. Zombies are often portrayed as mindless, automatons who have little or no concept of their former lives.

It could also significantly shift the balance of energy. So think slow Night of the Living Dead (1968) zombies vs the super quick zombies of the 1990’s remake! In fact, because the hypothalamus is also responsible for regulating the release of hormones throughout the body, any changes to this can significantly alter whole body function.

The limbic system, the frontal lobe and the amygdala

In addition to the limbic system, the frontal lobe and the amygdala receive a lot of attention for contributing to mood and emotions. The medulla oblongata is another particular location that is frequently associated with anger and frustration.

Of course, all of these theories, are just idle speculation, and the zombie phenomenon remains firmly rooted in fiction. But the world is full of potential sources and culprits. The trigger to a zombie outbreak could be within us already… just waiting for the right chemical or biological key to unlock it!

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