NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The GUIDE: Zombies, the serious side [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Note:  I originally planned to post MWF this week only, but I'm discovering soooooooo much material to work with, I'll will likely be extending into next!]

Urban fantasy as elevated the appreciation and acceptance of such fantastical characters as vampires and werewolves.  Classic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings for example, it shows us the honorable side of else, the words and more of the fantastical creatures which inhabit the world of myth and legend.
Zombie crowd from "Shaun of the Dead"

Ah, but zombies there just doesn't seem to be any way to make them honorable or acceptable.

In movies and novels, zombies are either mindless horde animated by evil magic, or "animalistic sub humans created by evil technology."  They may attack under funny circumstances, as in Bruce Campbell movies or the campy classic "Shaun of the Dead." On the other hand, the zombies may be coming at you in an unstoppable or as in "The Night of the Living Dead."  Anyway you look at it, the zombies are the enemy and are out to get… You!

So what makes a zombie, scientifically speaking.  In the voodoo mythology, voodoo priests could turn living humans into mindless servants through their magic, which in reality consisted of a combination of pharmaceuticals, which suppressed higher thought functions.  One of the chemicals used, traditionally, was tetrodotoxin or TTX.  TTX is well known in neuroscience, it is a chemical which blocks sodium channels, preventing the depolarizing sodium entry into neurons necessary for the formation of an action potential.  In the presence of tetrodotoxin, neurons are unable to receive and transmit the neural signals which underlie information processing of the brain.  TTX is an extract from puffer fish, fish used in the risky Japanese dish known as "fugu."  Fugu is a dish for risk takers and adventurers, and that the chef must take great care not to break the poison gland, which contains the TTX, and would kill anyone who consumes the dish.  On the other hand, just the slightest amount of TTX will cause a slight numbness to the tongue and lips and give the sensation of daring and risk to aficionados.  The dosage high enough will block all nervous system and muscle activity, while moderate doses will block some brain activity, but not all.  The use of neurotoxins is hardly unknown, considering that the neuromuscular blocker curare, was first discovered in use by native tribes on their blowgun darts to disable large prey.  So is not unheard of that primitive medicine and ritual may very well have developed the use of tetrodotoxin as a medicine for suppressing violent and aggressive behaviors.  It is that only a small step from such use too much more serious case of deliberately suppressing higher mental function, leading to legends of the "Voodoo Zombies" who functioned as slaves for their "evil masters."

On the other hand, there are a number of other possibilities from a scientific perspective for the classical "mindless, reanimated dead."  Aside from the fantastical gimmick of magical reanimation, science fiction authors have toyed with the idea of zombies created by alien organisms, viruses, stem cells, and nanomachines.  I mentioned the latter in Monday's blog, in conjunction with the web comic Schlock Mercenary.  Science fiction author Larry Niven postulated an alien virus that could reanimate bodies of dead soldiers on battlefield.  In the short story "Night on Mispec Moor" Niven's protagonist finds himself the only survivor as night falls after a brutal battle.  Unable to leave the scene as the bodies of friends and enemies begin to reanimate, he seeks high ground where he can make his own defense, only to discover that his medical kit holds the secret to survival.  The arising that an alien virus or microorganism is reanimating the bodies, he sprays them with a broad spectrum antiviral/antibiotic, causing the bodies to collapse and returned to the fully dead state.  Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" provides a similar cautionary tale in which aliens are able to control the bodies of humans, whether those humans are in fact alive or dead.

And yet the most intriguing notion, comes from recent studies with stem cells.  As medical research increasingly looks to the possibilities of stem cell therapies for tissue regeneration and growth, one question that is often asked is what will happen if the stem cells begin to grow in a manner that was not planned for?  While the most obvious result would be cancerous tissue, another possibility is that stem cells could result in a restoration of dead, necrotic tissue.  If enough of this tissue is restored to a near living state, would this not make zombies?  Still, the problem is one of reanimation of the brain tissue.  It is an interesting contradiction in fictional literature that zombies are essentially brainless, yet the only way to effectively defeat a zombie is to destroy the head and brain.  Reanimation of neural tissue would require the ability to not just provide glucose, oxygen and other essential nutrients to the neural tissue, but also a way to restore the electrochemical activity.  Perhaps it is most telling, that what we think of as memory and personality is primarily the result of the synaptic connections that are neurons make with each other.  Once an organism is killed, the once living cells undergo a process of necrosis.  Essentially what that means for our zombies, is that the cells no longer have intact intracellular mechanisms, nor do they have the same connections between cells.  If we extend this now to the brains of humans, we begin to understand the very soon after death the synaptic connections between neurons would break down.  With the loss of synaptic connections, the knowledge, skills, memory, and personality of that human would also be lost.  Thus, if we reanimate the body, the "mind" would still not be functioning.  Nonetheless, control of the muscles which allow the zombie to moving walk would still reside in spinal cord and brain stem with some residual signal coming from the motor cortex.

Thus, the idea that some these represent some form of reanimated corpse, necessarily brings with it the idea that brain function would not be restored.  Thus, zombies that results strictly from reanimation, would be able to do little else than lurch and moan.  On the other hand, zombies created through transfer of whatever agent cause the reanimation could very well affect living humans to the point that they exhibit the same characteristics as the living dead.  Thus, the popular fiction and movie concept of a few rare individuals able to plan, use tools, and organize their fellows into the pursuit of living prey, may n fact, represent a few "Voodoo Zombies" within their midst.

No matter what the source whether scientific or fantastic, rest assured that your faithful Lab Rat is prepared and equipped to deal with the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse.  I recently joined Zombie Squad, an organization that can be found at their forum  While the zombie squad motto "Making Dead Things Deader" is purely and fun, the philosophy behind the movement is one of emergency preparation.  The philosophy is, if you're prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse, then you're prepared for just about any disaster that might come your way.  Zombie Squad members include volunteers who assist in communications, emergency services and recovery efforts from weather, geological, and civil emergencies.  They promote emergency preparedness in the event of a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, winter storm, flooding and many other situations that are quite real, and have little to do with fantasy and science fiction.  They also sponsor firearms awareness, safety, training and target competitions.  In addition, the idea of preparing for zombies is just plain fun.

So that's the scientific view of zombies and the Zombie Apocalypse.  In the next couple blogs will take a look at the fantasy and science fiction view of zombies with an eye to not just how science is used and abused, but also at the absurd and the amusing.  For anyone interested, author Michael Z Williamson and I will be participating in several zombie themed panels at liberty con and Dragon con this year.  The panels range from funny to serious, and we do hope that you find them enjoyable.

Until next time, be prepared, and protect your brain. After all the zombies only want you for your "BRAINZ!"

1 comment:

  1. Nit, RAH's Puppet Masters didn't control dead humans, only living ones.

    Also, the "Hag-Ridden" humans were just as smart/dangerous as non Hag-Ridden humans.

    Paul Howard (ak Drak Bibliophile)


Please add comment - no links, spammers will be banned.