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What are the real zombies?

Zombies have become staple figures of popular culture, and the zombie apocalypse is a trope that features in many books, movies, and TV series. But are there actual, real cases of zombiism in nature? Read this special feature to find out. Share on PinterestAre there any real cases of zombification? We investigate.Zombie. The walking dead.…

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What are the real zombies?

Zombies have become staple figures of popular culture, and the zombie apocalypse is a trope that features in many books, movies, and TV series. But are there actual, real cases of zombiism in nature? Read this special feature to find out. Share on PinterestAre there any real cases of zombification? We investigate.Zombie. The walking dead. Reanimated corpses. The undead.Whatever you choose to call them, these corpses that rise from the grave to walk the world and terrify — and sometimes infect — its inhabitants are one of the top monsters in popular culture.The word zombie — originally spelled as zombi — first came into the English language in the 1800s, when poet Robert Southey mentioned it in his History of Brazil.According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word comes from the Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole word zonbi, and it is akin to the Kimbundu term nzúmbe, which means ghost.The word refers to creatures from Haitian folklore that, at its origin, was little more than the ghosts from Western folklore.However, little by little, the concept evolved to refer to a person that is rendered mindless by a witch doctor, entering a death-like state while still animated, and thus becoming the witch doctor’s slave.Nowadays, people use the word “zombie” a lot more loosely — often metaphorically — to refer to anyone or anything that presents as apathetic, moves slowly, and demonstrates little awareness of their surroundings.But do zombies or zombie-like beings actually exist in nature? If so, what are they, and how do they come to enter this state of “undeath?” And can humans ever become zombie-like? In this special feature, we investigate.1. Zombie antsOphiocordyceps is a genus of fungi that has more than 200 species, and mycologists are still counting. Many species of fungi can be dangerous, often because they are toxic to animals, but there is one thing in particular that makes Ophiocordyceps especially frightening.Share on PinterestCarpenter ants taken over by parasitic fungi give in to their attackers and ‘lose their minds.’These species of fungus “target” and infect various insects through their spores. After infection takes place, the parasitic fungus takes control of the insect’s mind, altering its behavior to make the propagation of fungal spores more likely.Ophiocordyceps “feed” on the insects they attach to, growing into and out of their bodies until the insects die.One of these species, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, specifically infects, controls, and kills carpenter ants (Camponotus castaneus), native to North America.When Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infect carpenter ants, they turn them into zombies. The ants become compelled to climb to the top of elevated vegetation, where they remain affixed and die. The high elevation allows the fungus to grow and later spread its spores widely. Researchers from Pennsylvania State (Penn State) University found that O. unilateralis take full control of the ants’ muscle fibers, forcing them to move as it “wants” them to.”We found that a high percentage of the cells in a host were fungal cells,” notes David Hughes, who is associate professor of entomology and biology at Penn State.”In essence, these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing.”David HughesBelow, you can watch a video showing how the parasitic fungus infects its victims, leading them to their death.2. Zombie spidersLast year, zoologist Philippe Fernandez-Fournier — from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada — and colleagues made a chilling discovery in the Ecuadorian Amazon.Share on PinterestA species of parasitic wasps takes full control of small, social spiders, driving them to their death.They found that a previously unknown species of the Zatypota wasp can manipulate spiders from the Anelosimus eximius species to an extent that researchers have never before witnessed in nature.A. eximius spiders are social animals that prefer to remain in groups, never straying too far from their colonies.But Fernandez-Fournier and team noticed that members of this species infected with Zatypota larva exhibited bizarre behavior, leaving their colony to weave tightly-spun, cocoon-like webs in remote locations. When the researchers opened these artificial “cocoons,” they found Zatypota larvae growing inside.Further research presented a gruesome string of events. The Zatypota wasps lay eggs on the abdomen of A. eximius spiders. When the egg hatches and the wasp larva emerges, it starts feeding on the spider and begins to take control of its body.When the larva has gained full control of its host, it turns it into a zombie-like creature that is compelled to stray away from its mates and spin the cocoon-like nest that will allow the larva to grow into the adult wasp.Before entering its new “cocoon,” though, the wasp larva first finishes its “job” by devouring its host.”Wasps manipulating the behavior of spiders has been observed before, but not at a level as complex as this,” says Fernandez-Fournier.”[T]his behavior modification is so hardcore. The wasp completely hijacks the spider’s behavior and brain and makes it do something it would never do, like leave its nest and spinning a completely different structure. That’s very dangerous for these tiny spiders.”Philippe Fernandez-Fournier3. The reanimated virusReanimating humans, or, at least, human-like creatures, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H. P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator, is a notion that has piqued the interest of writers, filmmakers and, of course, scientists, throughout the ages.Share on PinterestA newly ‘reanimated’ giant virus from the Siberian permafrost offers a chilling warning of possible dangers to come.But while bringing dead humans back to life may not be on the cards for our race just yet, reviving other organisms is. This can be particularly unsettling when we think that those organisms are viruses.In 2014, researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at Aix–Marseille Université in France dug a fascinating organism out of the Siberian permafrost: a so-called giant virus, about 30,000 years old, which they named Pithovirus sibericum.Giant viruses are called this way because, though still tiny, they are easily visible under the microscope. But there is something else that makes P. sibericum stand apart. It is a DNA virus that contains a large number of genes — as many as 500, to be precise.This is in stark contrast with other DNA viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which only contains about 12 genes in all.The size of giant viruses, as well as the fact that they contain such a large amount of DNA, can make them particularly dangerous, explain the researchers who discovered P. sibericum since they can stick around for an extremely long time.”Among known viruses, the giant viruses tend to be very tough, almost impossible to break open,” explain two of the virus’s discoverers, Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, in an interview for National Geographic.”Special environments such as deep ocean sediments and permafrost are very good preservers of microbes [and viruses] because they are cold, anoxic [oxygen-free], and […] dark,” they add.When “reanimated, P. sibericum only infected amoebas — archaic unicellular organisms — but happily not humans or other animals. Yet Claverie and Abergel warn that there may be similar giant viruses buried inside the permafrost that could prove dangerous to humans.Though they have remained safely contained so far, global heating and human action could cause them to resurface and come back to life, which might bring about unknown threats to health.”Mining and drilling mean […] digging through these ancient layers for the first time in millions of years. If ‘viable’ [viruses] are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster.”Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel4. Zombie plantsAlso, in 2014, researchers from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom, found that certain bacteria, known as “phytoplasma,” turn some plants into “zombies.”Share on PinterestPlants such as goldenrods can succumb to the control of manipulative bacteria.The bacteria — which insects disseminate — infect plants such as goldenrods, which have yellow flowers. The infection causes the goldenrods to put out leaf-like extensions instead of their usual blooms.These leaf-like growths attract more insects, which allows the bacteria to “travel” widely and infect other plants.While the transformation does not cause the plant to die, researchers are fascinated by how phytoplasma can bend this host’s “will” to make it grow the elements they require to spread and thrive.”The insects transmit bacteria, so-called phytoplasmas, which destroy the life cycle of the plants,” says Prof. Günter Theißen from Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, one of the researchers who have closely studied the activity of phytoplasma.”These plants become the living dead. Eventually, they only serve the spread of the bacteria.”Prof. Günter Theißen5. Human zombies?But can humans turn into zombies, too? In the 1990s, Dr. Chavannes Douyon and Prof. Roland Littlewood decided to investigate whether Haitian zombies — reanimated, but mindless humans — were a real possibility.Share on PinterestPeople with Cotard’s syndrome are convinced that they are dead.In 1997, the two published a study paper in The Lancet in which they analyzed the cases of three individuals from Haiti whose communities had identified as zombies.One was a 30-year-old woman who had, allegedly, quickly died after having fallen ill. Her family recognized her walking about as a “zombie” 3 years after this event. Another was a young man who had “died” at 18, and reemerged after another 18 years at a cockfight.The final case study concerned another woman who had “died” at 18 but was spotted again as a zombie 13 years after this event.Dr. Douyon and Prof. Littlewood examined the three “zombies” and found that they had not been the victims of an evil spell. Instead, medical reasons could explain their zombification.The first “zombie” had catatonic schizophrenia, a rare condition that makes the person act as though they are walking in a stupor. The second person had experienced brain damage, and also had epilepsy, while the third appeared merely to have a learning disability.”People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombi,” the researchers write in their paper.But there is also a specific psychiatric disorder called Cotard’s syndrome that can cause people to act like zombies. This is because they are under the delusion that they are dead or decomposing.It remains unclear just how prevalent this condition is, but research suggests that it is a rare occurrence. Documented cases of people with Cotard’s syndrome are unsettling, nevertheless.One case study reports the situation of a 53-year-old woman who “was complaining that she was dead, smelled like rotting flesh, and wanted to be taken to a morgue so that she could be with dead people.”Another study documents a 65-year-old man who had developed a belief that his organs — including his brain — had stopped working. He also believed that the house he lived in was slowly but steadily falling apart.At some point, the man attempted to take his own life. Researchers report that “[h]is suicide note revealed that he wanted to kill himself as he feared spreading a deadly infection to the villagers who resultantly might suffer from cancer.”Do such cases mean that zombies are real in some way, or do they merely reflect our uneasy relationship with death? We leave it to you to decide.
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Science & Health

Vitamin D sufficiency may reduce complications of COVID-19

A recent small-scale study has concluded that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are less likely to have life threatening complications if they have sufficient vitamin D levels.A new study demonstrates that people with sufficient levels of vitamin D are less likely to develop life threatening COVID-19 complications when hospitalized with the disease.The research, published in the…

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Vitamin D sufficiency may reduce complications of COVID-19

A recent small-scale study has concluded that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are less likely to have life threatening complications if they have sufficient vitamin D levels.A new study demonstrates that people with sufficient levels of vitamin D are less likely to develop life threatening COVID-19 complications when hospitalized with the disease.The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, could be valuable for doctors attempting to reduce the mortality rates of COVID-19 in the absence of an effective vaccine.If further studies back up these findings, vitamin D supplements might offer a cost-effective way to limit the risk of severe COVID-19. It is important to note that this recent study has several limitations, which we address below.Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.Since the sudden emergence of the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, scientists have paid a great deal of attention to the development of a vaccine. Experts consider a vaccine to be crucial in reducing the effects of the virus, even if it is not yet clear to what extent an initial vaccine would moderate rates of transmission and infection.Alongside the endeavor to develop a vaccine, researchers are also focusing on developing effective COVID-19 treatments. Even if none can make a person immune to the virus, treatments may be able to reduce the disease’s severity.The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved two drugs as treatments for COVID-19: remdesivir and dexamethasone.Another candidate is vitamin D. Research has suggested that it might, in theory, be effective, but corroborating this requires further efforts.Rather than analyzing the effects of vitamin D as COVID-19 treatment, the researchers behind the present study looked at the effects of a person’s vitamin D levels on the severity of the disease.To do so, they analyzed data from patients with confirmed COVID-19 who had been admitted to the Sina Hospital, in Tehran, Iran.Of the 611 people admitted with confirmed COVID-19 before May 1, 2020, there were records of the 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels, an indication of overall vitamin D levels, for 235 patients. Their mean age was 58.7 years, ranging from 20–90 years, and 37.4% were older than 65.The researchers classified the patients into two groups: those with vitamin D levels of at least 30 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) — an amount considered sufficient by the Endocrine Society — and those with lower values.They then analyzed the severity of the patients’ COVID-19 signs and symptoms using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Severe or critical disease might involve a range of issues, including shortness of breath, respiratory failure, or a significantly reduced blood oxygen level.After cross-checking the patients’ vitamin D levels with the severity of their COVID-19 symptoms and accounting for confounding factors, the researchers found that having a vitamin D level of above 30 ng/ml was significantly associated with having less severe COVID-19.Among the 235 patients with confirmed COVID-19, only 32.8% had sufficient levels of the vitamin.The researchers also found that the patients with sufficient vitamin D had higher blood lymphocyte counts and lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood — both of which indicate a positive immune response.The researchers speculate that this may have reduced the likelihood of developing cytokine storm, which can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome in COVID-19 patients, sometimes resulting in death.The findings highlight, the researchers say, that vitamin D sufficiency may be important in the eventuality that people develop COVID-19 alongside another respiratory disease, such as influenza.According to the study’s corresponding author, Dr. Michael F. Holick, director of the General Clinical Research Unit at the medical campus of Boston University, in Massachusetts, “There is great concern that the combination of an influenza infection and a coronal viral infection could substantially increase hospitalizations and death due to complications from these viral infections.”For the researchers, their findings suggest that vitamin D supplementation would be valuable. As Dr. Holick notes: “Because vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is so widespread in children and adults in the United States and worldwide, especially in the winter months, it is prudent for everyone to take a vitamin D supplement to reduce [the] risk of being infected and having complications from COVID-19.”It is worthing noting the present study’s limitations. First, the researchers only had access to a relatively small number of patients. Before drawing solid conclusions, scientists need to carry out much larger studies.Also, various issues can influence both vitamin D status and COVID-19 severity, such as socioeconomic factors and smoking status. The scientists accounted for neither of these in their analysis.Also, because the study was cross-sectional, the researchers could not prove that vitamin D insufficiency caused an increase in disease severity. To address these limitations, the researchers call for “large-scale studies and randomized clinical trials.”For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.
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Video gaming as a child related to improvements in memory

A new study exploring the link between video games and cognition finds that playing video games as a child can improve a person’s working memory years later on specific tasks.Video games can be a contentious topic, particularly among parents or caregivers who may be concerned about the effects of spending hours in front of the…

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Video gaming as a child related to improvements in memory

A new study exploring the link between video games and cognition finds that playing video games as a child can improve a person’s working memory years later on specific tasks.Video games can be a contentious topic, particularly among parents or caregivers who may be concerned about the effects of spending hours in front of the console.Yet, it seems that some video gaming could actually be beneficial. Recent studies have shown that playing video games could improve learning and may even protect against dementia in older adults.The authors of a recent review of the evidence on video games concluded that gaming could have benefits for both cognitive and emotional skills.In a new study, which features in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona trained volunteers to play “Super Mario 64” — a game that researchers have previously shown to induce structural changes in parts of the brain associated with executive function and spatial memory.The new study found that people who played video games as children showed greater improvements in their working memory than those who did not, suggesting that video games can have long lasting benefits for cognition.This study combined video game playing with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive form of brain stimulation that scientists have studied as a treatment for mood disorders. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use for the treatment of major depression when other approaches have failed.Studies have also shown TMS to boost cognitive performance under some conditions, with more than 60 studies reporting that the treatment led to significant improvements in cognition, including in working memory (holding and manipulating information over a short period).The researchers behind the new study wanted to find out whether combining video game training and TMS could enhance cognitive function more than either element alone.They asked 27 healthy volunteers, with an average age of 29 years, to take part in 10 video game training sessions, during each of which they played “Super Mario 64” for an hour and a half.At the end of each session, the researchers applied TMS to part of the prefrontal cortex, which is at the front of the brain and is important for complex cognitive functions, such as working memory and reasoning. The researchers assessed the cognitive function of the participants before the study started, at the end of the 10 sessions, and 15 days after this.They assessed a range of cognitive functions, including reaction time, working memory, attention span, visuospatial skills, and problem-solving.Although the results overall showed very limited changes in cognitive ability, which seemed to result only from the video game training and not the TMS, the researchers did find that participants with early experience of video gaming had improved working memory.“People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result,” explains lead author of the study Dr. Marc Palaus, Ph.D.People with prior experience of playing video games (but not the actual game in the study) also showed improvements in processing and were better able to focus on relevant stimuli during the tasks.“People who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups showed similar levels,” adds Dr. Palaus.The results suggest that video games may induce cognitive changes that last for years after people have stopped playing.Dr. Palaus says that video games that provide motivation — making the player want to keep on playing — and also get more difficult to stay challenging require intensive use of brain resources, which makes them ideal for boosting cognitive ability.“Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing.”– Dr. Marc Palaus, Ph.D. It is important to note that this study included a small number of participants who were all healthy, young, and highly educated, meaning that the findings might not be more widely applicable.Talking about the findings of their study, Dr. Palaus stressed that these improvements only have a limited effect on the performance of other activities not linked to video gaming, as is the case with most cognitive training.
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Lax gun laws in neighboring states may increase firearm deaths

A US study suggests strong gun control regulations reduce a state’s firearm deaths, but having neighbors with more lenient laws undermines their effect.Share on PinterestNew research suggests that one state’s lax gun laws could undo the effects of its neighbor’s stricter firearm regulations.In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States, according…

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Lax gun laws in neighboring states may increase firearm deaths

A US study suggests strong gun control regulations reduce a state’s firearm deaths, but having neighbors with more lenient laws undermines their effect.Share on PinterestNew research suggests that one state’s lax gun laws could undo the effects of its neighbor’s stricter firearm regulations.In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.Overall, research indicates that stronger state laws governing the sale and ownership of firearms reduce firearm-related deaths. However, some states have relatively high rates of gun deaths despite strict regulations. To investigate why this might be the case, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Boston University School of Public Health at Boston, MA, looked into the effects of firearm laws in neighboring states.They used the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System to obtain figures for firearm-related deaths in the 48 adjacent U.S. states from 2000 to 2017. There were 578,022 firearm deaths in total, including homicides and suicides, but excluding deaths due to shootings by police or other law enforcement agents. The scientists also searched the State Firearm Laws Database for laws in each state regarding:background checksgun dealer regulationsbuyer regulationsgun-trafficking lawsThe team used the number of these laws as a proxy for gun control strength in each state.If you would like to check your registration status or register to vote, we have added some useful links at the bottom of this article.Overall, stronger state gun laws were associated with reduced firearm deaths, but having a neighboring state with more permissive laws undermined this protective effect.Larger policy differences across state borders were associated with increased gun-related deaths, suicides, and homicides, though the results were statistically stronger for suicide than homicide.The authors conclude:“This study adds to the growing literature emphasizing the role played by neighboring states’ firearm regulations in addition to own-state firearm regulations in firearm deaths. Failing to account for neighboring states with weaker laws, in some instances, can make a state’s own regulations appear less effective in reducing firearm deaths.”The scientists calculate that, on average, failure to account for weaker firearm laws in neighboring states make it appear as though a state’s laws were about 20% less effective at reducing deaths than they really were.They report their findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.The researchers write that higher prices and strong marketing regulations can lead consumers to purchase firearms in adjacent, relatively unregulated markets. They say these are a frequent source of the guns used in crimes.They believe their work supports the case for more cooperative legislation between neighboring states and at the federal level.“I think the main message of this study is that to solve a nationwide problem we need to think of a nationwide or at least a regional-level (i.e. multistate) approach, like we may also need for the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Ye Liu, who is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama and the first author of the study. “An ‘each state on its own’ approach is ultimately inadequate to address one of the biggest public health challenges in this country,” Dr. Liu adds.The authors acknowledge the number of gun-control laws may not perfectly reflect the strictness of a state’s regulations. In addition, they note states may vary in how diligently they enforce these laws.They call for further studies that might use alternative measures of regulatory strength, focus on specific categories of law, or explore the effects of regulations in more distant states. To check your voter registration status, click here to visit VoteAmerica, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout. They can also help you register to vote, vote by mail, request an absentee ballot, or find your polling place.
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