The science behind the zombie apocalypse

Reverse engineering your favourite worst nightmare

By Sahil Dawka Published Date
30 - Sep - 2016
| Last Updated
03 - Oct - 2016
The science behind the zombie apocalypse

The End

You’re hiding in a municipal trash container, all alone. The stench is unbearable, but it’s a small price for survival. You breathe softly because you can hear them grunting and shuffling.. Zombies are about. Safe spots are few and far between, places inaccessible without a minimal level of sustained muscle coordination. Your town is overrun, but last you heard, so is every place else. Earth’s most powerful species has become a mob of mindless monsters, save few, like you.  

A few months before the end..

The government and ultra rich with their armies, tried to suppress humanity’s plague. But the world was too small, everyone was connected, it spread faster than a good meme on 9gag. Only few lucky stragglers (mostly those with weapons) survived, and the rich retreated to their makeshift mansions on offshore oil rigs, leaving the mainland to plunder and ruin. Nomadic and sporadic, intelligent and lucky, you find yourself with sense and mind, but stuck in a tight spot. You wonder, how it all began..

Where do we go now?

Back to the Present

Today’s facts: 

Here is where the storytelling ends and the science begins. The Hindu and reports that ethical permission for experimenting on cadavers has been granted to a collaboration between two research oriented biotechnology companies from different continents, who aim to eventually provide life-elongating services. While they certainly aren’t the proverbial Umbrella Corp., this may just be the case someday. As it stands, the permission they needed was for performing experiments on the bodies of people who have recently been declared brain dead (but otherwise functionally half-alive). This trial, started in April 2016, will be the first milestone towards a potentially magical regenerative therapy that may one day help heal damaged brain and nervous tissue, not unlike a lizard that can grow back its tail. The companies mentioned in Telegraph’s report were Revita Life Sciences in India, and Bioquark Inc. in the USA. Together they are collaborating on research towards the same end, in what is named the ReAnima project, in India. Yes, the zombie outbreak may actually start right here in India!! In the Rudrapur district of Uttarakhand, to be precise. A high population density certainly has its benefits!

While it’s not a very large possibility that the ReAnima project will directly lead to a zombie apocalypse, it is definitely one of the first real possibilities, thanks to emerging biotechnologies. They describe their project as “A Second Chance at Life”, and their mission statement is “Exploring the potential of cutting edge biomedical technology for human neuro-regeneration and neuro-reanimation”. While the project is officially located in Philadelphia, in the USA, their first full scale trial is being conducted in the three-story Anupam Hospital in Rudrapur, India. This is most likely because technically, India has no laws for conducting clinical trials on the unfortunate ‘living cadaver’. This is why they only required permission from an Institutional Review Board, regarding the ethical judgement of whether or not the study should be done. They will wait for patients from nearby hospitals who have been declared brain dead. The Principal Investigator of the study is Dr. Himanshu Bansal, an orthopedician with a passion for neuroscience, and the owner of Revita Life Sciences. The study is titled “Non-randomized, Open-labeled, Interventional, Single Group, Proof of Concept Study With Multi-modality Approach in Cases of Brain Death Due to Traumatic Brain Injury Having Diffuse Axonal Injury” and only recruits brain-dead humans. Before we look at what exactly the ‘experiments’ of this study are, and how zombies can come out of it, let’s establish the characteristics of a zombie from the ground up.

The Science of Zombiefication

Thanks to media like books, and now movies, a lot of people have a general concept of what a zombie is. However, the zombies inhabiting different fictional worlds are often different in their natures, so here we are describing the possibilities of a zombie in our common real world. To be sure, there are many paths towards the possibility of a zombie outbreak, but the characteristics are mostly the same. The following information will help you analyze any zombie outbreak in the near future!

While the first human zombification may be the original practices that inspired the modern voodoo stories, it is not quite uncommon in nature as many insects are known to turn into zombies. Bees, crickets, and ants are infected by worms, fungi or other parasitic microorganisms that control their behaviour by hijacking their chemistry. The zombified hosts help propagate the controlling parasite by engaging in certain (often self-destructive) behaviour. In fact, a lot of us may already be zombies under the control of the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which is known to infect almost half the world’s population.

To zombie or not to zombie...

Humans, however, have more complex systems in place than insects. Yet most of our functioning is controlled by the brain, both consciously and unconsciously. Therefore a zombie’s brain is definitely different from a healthy human brain. But how? More often than not, zombies are brought back from the dead, and dead tissue atrophies. Thus, it would not be so far-fetched to explain a zombie’s behaviour using a combination of the symptoms of various neurological problems and neurodegenerative diseases. Let us start with the most overt sign of a zombie, the movement. That stiff, uncertain, lumbering gait is a symptom of spinocerebellar ataxia, which is damage to the cerebellum, the smaller back of the brain that houses around half of all the neurons in the brain. This region functions like the firmware for our motor skills and coordination, so damage to the cerebellum is directly reflected in the retarded movements. Furthermore, their cognitive inability and impulsivity are most likely due to damage to the prefrontal cortex, the rational decision making part of the brain. That’s why they start charging (as fast as they can) at the slightest hint of prey, but just quietly shuffle aimlessly about otherwise. This is also why you are hiding in a trash container in the apocalyptic future. It takes cognition to even consider the inside of the container, it has a lid which takes coordinated motor skills to open, and the stench covers for you in case you fear the ones with sensitive noses. 

Also, human zombies are generally not peaceful, and always hungry. Their insatiable appetite can be attributed to improper functioning of the hypothalamus, which controls satiety. Imagine being perpetually hungry... But that’s not why they’re always angry. Our attitude about our situation is governed by the amygdala, the seat of the famous ‘fight or flight response’. Zombie brains appear to constantly be in fight mode, perhaps owing to an overactive amygdala. They never recognise anyone, even if they happened to be  family when alive. This disease is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and affects many healthy individuals, hampering their ability to recognize or remember the face of any person. Despite all these frustrations, zombies are different from humans also because they can hardly express any of their issues. Almost any domestic animal has more variety in their auditory output than a zombie. This is scientifically plausible as a combined effect of Wernicke’s aphasia and expressive aphasia, rendering the brain practically unable to comprehend language and communication. So there you have it, a zombie. Some unfortunate human who died incompletely, or more likely, died and was brought back to life incompletely. Just like that clinical trial.

Foreword to the future

Bioquark and Revita’s ground-breaking clinical trial is yet to publish any results, as the experiments have hardly begun. The procedures being tested to bring back the dead involve injecting a solution of stem cells, proteins, peptides and other activators into the brain and spinal cord, shining lasers on brain tissue through the skull, and stimulating electrical nervous pathways with magnetism. Stem cells are already known to behave in miraculous ways, specialising into any cell that is required in the vicinity. The other components of the solution include activated proteins, which are the factory workers of the cell, and also mRNA and other primordial genetic soup. The idea is to artificially create the conditions that will trick the dead brain into growing once again, as if it was in the body of a newborn child. Dr. Bansal will study the effects of these treatments on the comatose patients over a timespan of six months or more, observing the neural regeneration, if any. The results of the study will confirm whether or not reversal of brain death is possible. While the ReAnima project almost certainly won’t achieve results close to anything like reviving a dead person, it will certainly help pave the road towards that end. If it were anywhere close to its goal, the elite of our world would surely have taken it for themselves and hidden it from the world. 

In the future, companies may never have to rehire again!

Soon, there may be other ambitious individuals and companies who are willing to take advantage of the regulatory lax in our country and try out their own procedures towards unknown ends. Perhaps some will be noble and true in their quest, like a company who wants to test living cadavers for maintenance and use them as an unlimited blood supply, solving a crucial limitation in the state of our healthcare systems. Yet others may not be as nobly motivated, and the opportunity for a real life super-villain would be ripe! 

Maybe the results will give us some clues towards the procedure for a successful starfish-like regrowth and reanimation. Once that is determined, the procedure and its ingredients could be written in the genetic code. Furthermore, the procedure could be tweaked to incorporate the required zombie characteristics, which would give us the genetic zombie code. Researchers at the JC Venter Institute in the USA have already successfully synthesised life, by creating a living strand of DNA that doesn’t exist in nature. So it isn’t much of a stretch from there to synthesize a virus or bacteria containing the zombie code and design it to spread as rapidly as possible. If you like the sound of being worse than Hitler and actually plan to do this, don’t forget to synthesize the cure, which you can then sell to the highest bidders. After that, it’s a short climb to your local water tank, or a small bribe to the technician who cleans the air conditioning of the metro. 
While some may argue that the world is already filled with mindless zombies economically manipulated into being slaves for the few at the top, things can certainly get a lot worse! If you don’t plan on joining the crowd and becoming a zombie, best start running a lot, take up a martial art, and maybe learn how to throw knives. Either way, if it does come about, your best hope for survival will be the zombies’ favourite food - Brains