Before they appeared in movies, zombies played an important role in voodoo (or vodoun) culture in West Africa and Haiti. The word probably comes from nzambi,which roughly translates to, “spirit of a dead person.” Zombies are humans without a soul. In the early 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis proposed that zombies were more than mere witchcraft and folklore, and that zombie powder found in Haitian ceremonies might be derived from tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin that blocks nerve channels.
Davis drew his hypothesis partially from real-world examples such as the female jewel wasp (pictured), which injects its tetrodotoxin into a cockroach’s brain, shutting down the roach’s fight-or-flight response. The wasp then leads the drugged bug into its burrow, lays its eggs upon the cockroach’s abdomen and, eight days later, the larvae hatch and feed upon the roach, burrowing into its innards. The cockroach is alive throughout and under the wasp’s control.
Leaf-cutter ants in Southeast Asia have their minds controlled by an infectious fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which makes the ant walk to the perfect position in the forest before killing its host, bursting through the ant’s skull, and releasing its spores into the forest.
These shuffling movie zombies have partially deteriorated, but still intact, brains, a condition which could be caused by a protein called a proteinaceous infectious particle, or prion. Prions are the infectious agents that brought us mad cow disease. When a misshapen prion enters our system, as in the case of mad cow, the rest of our prions take on its shape and the mind literally begins turning into mush. Relatives of victims of prion-caused diseases have looked at MRIs of their loved ones’ skulls and likened the scene to a shotgun blast to the head. And since prions aren’t even alive, they are nearly impossible to destroy. There are no known cures for prion-based diseases, and the proteins can still infect others years after their host-victim has died. The United Kingdom mandated that those killed by mad cow disease be buried in graves at least nine feet deep.
Infectious Zombie Virus
Schlozman agrees that prions are a good bet for creating a zombie-like state in a human. “How do we massively disseminate prions?” Schlozman asks. “We don’t know yet.”
Prions aren’t airborne…yet. But a new study from a group of pathologists in Zurich, Switzerland took concentrations of aerosolized prions and exposed mice to the spray. It turned out to be 100 percent lethal.