The science behind zombies: Could it really happen?

Horror icon George Romero is credited with creating the phenomenon that is the zombie. It was his creation that first had a taste for brains and took the form of the dead coming back to life in 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. From the movie in the ‘60s came a whole wave of zombie movies and zombie fans. Thanks to the Night of the Living Dead we have movies and TV shows such as the Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and Zombieland. Are zombies a complete work of fiction though, or is there a way to bring these undead creatures to life? We are having a look a the science behind whether the zombie apocalypse could ever happen.

The science behind zombies: Could it really happen?

Spreading the infection

The first thing that would need to happen is for a disease to break out and be transmitted from one person to another. Barring some new experiment gone wrong in a lab somewhere, the closest disease known to the zombie virus is rabies. The virus can be passed through biting and can incite violent and aggressive behaviors. The problem is that the rabies disease can overcome and take down a human in a short period of time which would not allow the virus much time to spread as people would die before infecting others. The rabies sufferer would have to infect a large number of people in a quick period of time for the disease to bring on the zombie apocalypse.

Can you change the brain?

So a rabies breakout could be the start of the zombie takeover, but it would take a lot for it to actually happen as those who are infected won’t survive long enough to infect enough people. Is there another way that humans could become ‘zombified’? According to experts in cognitive behavior, there is a possibility that we can remove the higher functions of the human brain, turning people into living zombies.

The research has shown that if a human suffers a brain injury, they can think they have lost some of their vision but their brain is still capable of observing what the person is seeing. The people in the experiments were asked what they could see, insisted they couldn’t see a thing but when pressed were right about what was in front of them. Researchers believe this shows that it is possible to turn a person into a zombie by manipulating parts of their brains, making them capable of doing straightforward tasks. The research on the brain has shown that the human body could still function in a state of ‘zombified’ mind, meaning that we could have walking zombies unable to use their brains but following basic instincts.

The science behind zombies: Could it really happen?

A fungus?

Looking to the animal kingdom, there is a fungal infection that appears to closely resemble the zombie virus. There are parasitic fungi called cordyceps that infect insects through fungal spores, slowly replacing the tissues within the insect until not more than their exoskeleton remains. It sounds like something from the horror video game The Last of Us, where the zombies were human versions of these insects. As well as taking over the insects bodies, some of these cordyceps actually control the functions of the insects, forcing them to move wherever the fungus wants to go.

There are a few circumstances that would have to perfectly align to enable a zombie apocalypse to happen. If rabies were to take over enough people for it to be a pandemic, then it would have to spread really quickly. Humans have the mental capacity to be zombified, and if they were to be infected by a cordyceps fungus then who knows, maybe the zombie virus could break out any day now!