Saturday, July 19, 2014

Scientists respond to the upcoming zombie apocalypse

America’s favorite TV show recently ran in marathon format on AMC a few weekends ago. And if you haven’t gotten into it yet, the first three seasons of “The Walking Dead” are available on Netflix with the fourth to be uploaded later this summer. Also, they ran a special “Talking Dead” that previewed Season 5, which begins in October.
I’ve bought into it — the idea of a zombie apocalypse. I’ve stocked up on a few cases of Beefaroni and an ice pick in anticipation.
But, after a so-so “World War Z” hit Netflix in June, my faith in zombies had started to waver. I can watch the genre known as “sci-fi,” but tune out when it turns to “fantasy.” There has to be a grain of truth to the story.
I put the question out on Profnet, a site that hooks up journalists with experts. Is there any chance that people could become zombies?
I mean, various mammals can get rabies, for example. In some mammals, they start to act like zombies: they become irrational, they bite, they foam at the mouth. And if bitten or scratched, the victim also gets rabies. This seems similar to what happens with zombies. Right?
This was my wishful thinking, so that I could enjoy my “Walking Dead” watching.
A quick response from Carnegie Mellon University professor Timothy Verstynen flashed across my computer screen. He has lectured on “zombie brains.” Perfect. I thought. This guy has the credentials to allow me to enjoy my TV show for at least one more season.
But he said: “I’d say a zombie brain is about as possible as a vampire brain (i.e. — so unlikely as to be almost impossible). But then again a scientist never says never.”
Darn. Thanks, Dr. Verstynen for squashing my hopes and dreams. (Now I’ll have to go back to watching “America’s Got Talent.” I mean, that’s scientifically possible, right?)
I didn’t want to believe it, though. I mean, a dracula is totally impossible! But humans have been brain dead. And humans have been cannibalistic. Why can’t the two combine like a guy with a shard of chocolate bumping into a guy with an open vat of peanut butter in the middle of the night?
I was about to join the Howard Stern fan club, when, thankfully, another message popped on my screen.
It was from Professor L. Syd M. Johnson of Michigan Technological University. He’d actually helped run a zombie symposium there in November, where academics “explored the psychology, mythology and bioethics of zombies.”
He also teaches a credit course called Zombie Ethics, where students watch “The Walking Dead” and apply principles of philosophy to determine the correct course of action during the End of Days.
My hero!
He liked my rabies theory. While the disease in humans acts differently than in, say, dogs, maybe some strange mutation can happen?
He said: “Rabies is a possibility, as is kuru, a prion disease (like Mad Cow) resulting from cannibalism (specifically, from eating brains and the central nervous system).”
His colleague in the zombie symposium, Biology Professor John L. Dahl of the University of Minnesota – Duluth, further elaborated:
“What is probably a plausible scenario is one in which prion-contaminated beef (of the kind that may have occurred with much of the British beef supply in the late 1990s) may have transmitted to humans. Prions have an incredibly long incubation period (upwards to 50-60 years before manifesting symptoms), and so the effect of prions in the British beef supply is probably only beginning to be understood despite the stop in practice of feeding cow remains to other cattle. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease) is transmissible to humans as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, and this can produce ‘zombie-like’ symptoms.”
Now my faith in a zombie apocalypse has been restored, and I can grab a can of Beefaroni and queue up a marathon of “The Walking Dead.” I am so there!

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