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July 24, 2012 2:11 PM Zombie Brains

By Danny Vinik

Think you’re an expert on zombies from Scooby Doo on Zombie Island and Dawn of the Dead? Well, can you produce a model the zombie brain?

Neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen are doing just that:

Working on their own time and drawing from their extensive knowledge of the zombie genre, they went through standard symptoms of the undead and presented a neural explanation for each one. For example, zombies have a desire to devour the living, or “reactive-impulsive aggression,” which is probably due to orbitofrontal-cortex damage, they said. The zombie also has a lumbering walk. They hypothesized that the wide, awkward gait of the undead was a sign of cerebral ataxia, a disorder caused by damage to the small cauliflower-looking region at the base of the brain, called the cerebellum. They also tackled the causes of impulse-control problems, language difficulties, memory loss, and attention disorders in the lively corpses.

Both Voytek, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at San Francisco, and Verstynen, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, have used their free time over the past few years to mapping out the zombie brain all the while continuing to produce high-quality work at their respective institutions.

At UCSF, Voytek has focused his work on understanding the pre-fontal cortex and memory damage while Verstynen’s research at Carnegie Mellon has centered on the motor cortex and the connection between the brain and body movements.

Voytek and Verstynen met in 2004 when Voytek joined the graduate program at University of California at Berkley. Verstynen was a student there at the time and the two immediately hit it off, discussing sci-fi movies and neuroscience frequently. When Voytek thought of the idea of mapping the zombie brain a few years later, he knew exactly who to call. After thinking it over and consulting with his colleagues, Verstynen agreed.

However, Voytek (who lists himself as a “Zombie Expert” on LinkedIn) and Verstynen have an even greater goal than just modeling the zombie brain. They want to use it, and the many talks they have given on it throughout the country, to educate people about the human brain itself:

“What we’re talking about is an introduction to neuroscience,” Verstynen said. “We’ve always had this eye out for how we can communicate science, and zombies were a flexible metaphor…What we really want to do is trick people into learning something.”

Unfortunately, Voytek and Verstynen may never get to confirm if their model is correct. A series of zombie-like events earlier this year, where individuals ate their victims, forced the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to officially refute the existence of zombies. David Daigle, a spokesman for the CDC, told the Huffington Post, “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead.”

Nevertheless, if Voytek and Verstynen’s research on zombie brains helps educate the public, they can claim it as a success.

Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.