Don't scream zombies at this question. That is not meant to be what it is about, regardless of how it sounds.

I have an interstellar war between humans and an alien race. The humans are winning, so the aliens design a virus based off of the original flu that used to go pandemic in early human history. This flu, however, causes the infected to go insane and attempt to beat others to death. The goal is to destabilize the populations and make military maneuvers difficult by making humans require their military as riot control. This happens in a few hundred years.

How plausible is this scenario? Is there a way to make your immune system react in such a way as to accidentally fry the part of your brain that controls serotonin without frying the rest of the brain?


4 Answers 4


There could be several ways this could happen. As a matter of fact something similar was used in FireFly, the reavers were an experiment gone wrong.

Rabies, syphilis both slowly drive people nuts (rabies much faster). So having a flu virus that did similar damage but stops at a pre-death stage might go a long ways. You can also have some virus that just generally messes with the chemistry of the brain. As you pointed out reducing Serotonin is one way to increase violent behavior.

Considering that training can change the brain chemistry to make a person be more naturally aggressive (shown in mice, appears to correlate in people) that a virus could do a similar physical change. Could be permanent, or temporary, or maybe even reversible, but it might take a while first to notice and understand the problem and then to deal with it. If it is a fast pandemic type flu and has a large starting vector, it could be very crippling for months.

  • $\begingroup$ I also would like it to continue to infect the respiratory tract, not only the brain which is one of the things that separate the flu from rabies. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ Mainly looking for behavior that causes extremely violent riots. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Mar 9, 2015 at 19:34

I think all the virus would need to do to have that effect is to dramatically ramp up the levels of adrenaline and testosterone. I think it is perfectly possible that a custom-designed virus could cause that. Indeed, it could simply contain extra genes for those hormones, to be expressed by any infected cell (basically turning every infected cell into an uncontrolled mass producer of those hormones).

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Known by later historians as the Hairy Lady Epidemic. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2015 at 0:13

One possibility would be create a pathogen that produces amphetamines or amphetamine like responses to the brain. Ampetamines, by flooding the brain with dopamines, has all kinds of wacky effects.

  1. Induced mania: Basically, the opposite of depression. Afflicted believe they are better looking, high social status, morally superior and physically superhuman ("Of course I can outshoot a SWAT team and get away.) Eventually, they believe themselves incapable of error and will react violently to anyone that disagrees with them, does not obey or other wise frustrates them anyway.
  2. Impairment induced paranoia: Paranoia is the brain's fail-safe mode which it falls back on if impaired. That why every thing from senility to way to much THC from otherwise largely innocuous marijuana, trigger paranoid behavior. Amphetamines bring this on big time both directly and through sleep deprivation.
  3. Sleep deprivation: Causes active hallucinations
  4. Hyperactivity: Afflicted cannot remain inactive.

Amphetamines always burn out because they cause dopamine release and when all the available dopamine is depleted, the crash occurs and the behaviors stop. But a pathogen could in principle, cause the dopamine producing neurons to go into overdrive constantly pumping it out.

The afflicted would be hyperactive, hallucinating, paranoid, feeling invulnerable, and justified in all their actions to the point they could morally attack anyone for the least real or imagined offense or disagreement.

They probably wouldn't riot in mass per se but they would start attacking people and infrastructure e.g. setting fires, poisoning water etc pretty much at random.

Remember, the lethality of any communicable disease is dependent on the lag time between infection and manifestation of systems. A disease that manifest in hours or days won't spread far before the vectors die or get quarantined. A disease that takes years to manifest can spread world wide, infect a large percentage of the population, before anyone even knows it exist.


Insane people are disorganized. A riot is possible because the rioters have common cause. Zombie mobs happen because the zombies don't go after each other (a hole in the premise of 28 days, I think). You need people to not only be insane but also not attack other insane people... unlikely.

Also, sane people are organized. Four people working together can easily overpower one insane person thrashing about.

Requiring an ongoing military presence as riot control implies you are controlling, not outright killing the rioters. No-one needs the Orkin man to move into their house. In the circumstances you describe I don't think the military would show such restraint.

I am thinking rage flu is not very plausible.


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