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ZOMBIE Neuropsychology

I wish that I could claim this zombie idea as my own, but sadly, I'm just not that creative and I feel strongly that I should always give credit where credit is due. Although he was not the first person to conceive the idea, a neurologist at the University of Virginia led a brilliant Grand Rounds about Zombie Neuroanatomy a few years ago that really got my wheels turning. So here I am presenting my own version of this topic in blog-form. Long before this particular neurologist's lecture, however, zombies have been a subject of popular culture in the United States. In fact, the first full-length feature film about zombies was released in 1932 during the Great Depression. Perhaps the timing of the film was a reflection on society's fears as a whole... The struggle to survive, a loss of individuality, the possible dissolution of our economic system, changes within our governing structures, and ultimately, the fine line between life and death.

The word zombie is thought to have originated from voodoo culture in Haiti, and could stem from the word nzambi (which is supposedly translated to mean the "spirit of a dead person") or jumbie (the West Indian word for "ghost"). Voodoo culture apparently used various neurotoxins, which were ground up with other ingredients into a fine powder, during the performance of certain rituals. One such neurotoxin (called tetrodotoxin) can be extracted from puffer fish and it is commonly known to lead to paralysis, and even death, when ingested. Therefore, it is thought that whomever was on the receiving end of this ritual suffered temporary paralysis and appeared dead, only to "come back to life" once the poison wore off... If it was administered in the correct dosage, of course. Over the years, the concept of zombies slowly morphed from this original idea of reanimation (or resurrection of the dead) to a contagious disease process marked by an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

So just for the fun of it, let's now compare some typical zombie characteristics to our knowledge about different regions of the brain and how they function. First, it's pretty clear that zombies aren't too skilled at planning, making decisions, assessing risk, problem-solving, or suppressing sudden urges. Hmmm, does this sound like any teenagers you know? These deficits suggest that zombies have problems with executive functioning (i.e. multi-tasking and the ability to engage in higher order activities) and a tendency to behave impulsively. Indeed, these cognitive skills and personality traits are associated with the frontal lobe, which doesn't fully develop until you're in your mid-20's. Second, zombies are depicted as rage-filled creatures, which indicates dysfunction in the more primitive part of the brain that is driven by emotions. This specifically involves the limbic system which- among other structures- houses the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex. The amygdala plays a key role in processing emotions and, if stimulated, is also linked to aggression. When functioning properly, the anterior cingulate cortex helps to regulate emotional responses, promote awareness, and detect pain. Okay, so I could go on to discuss the brain regions associated with hunger and appetite (the ventromedial hypothalamus), physical movement (the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and myelination of nerve fibers), and language production (Broca's area), but I think that you get the picture.

The final step when considering any type of disorder or condition is determining a plan for treatment. To date, there are no medications or empirically-supported therapies that cure or reduce the effects of zombie-ism. Therefore, my goal as a psychologist would be (a) to somehow facilitate a safe environment for both zombies and humans and (b) to improve overall quality of "life." I suppose that there's always (c) euthanasia. However, I'd prefer to avoid promoting anything that could create a controversy- particularly since I just compared zombies to teenagers in the previous paragraph! So getting back to feasible treatment options, I'd imagine there are behavioral management techniques that could be employed to effectively curtail biting. And perhaps a savvy nutritionist could develop a novel approach to meet zombies' unusual dietary needs... In the meantime, I'm open to any and all suggestions.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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