I recently created a concept of a realistic zombie virus after reading about DFTD, or Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor disease, spread by bites. It creates tumors on the face and inside the mouth of the Tasmanian Devil, eventually resulting in death.

I was hoping to take this concept and apply it to humans, where the tumors should grow within a month to the point where they press against the frontal lobe and cause inflammation of the brain and increased aggression as a byproduct, where infected humans will then begin to attempt to attack and bite others, spreading the disease.

I was also hoping the brain inflammation and/or damage caused by these tumors could also affect locomotion, causing the classic zombie shamble. These humans, similarly to Tasmanian Devils, die within 6 - 8 months of infection. By the final months of infection tissue necrosis begins to set in after permanent brain damage. At this point they're almost complete vegetables.

Is this possible? What are the limitations if so?

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    $\begingroup$ I doubt just putting pressure on the brain with tumors is going to cause people to start biting each other. You’re going to need some actual brain restructuring to make that happen, I think, since it’s so feral compared to the way we express aggression on a daily basis. $\endgroup$ Jun 30 '20 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ To affect the brain, the tumors would have to grow inside the skull, not on the face. The virus would have to travel from the site of the bite, through the blood-brain barrier, and into the brain. Some viruses (like HIV) can do this, but most cannot. There is a relationship between damage to the frontal lobe and aggression... but this typically results in far less than zombie-level aggression. Also, even a hyperviolent person is still rather intelligent, and thus does not fit the description of "zombie". $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Jun 30 '20 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ The thing about the Tasmanian devils is they already love to bite each other. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 30 '20 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ why not just use rabies virus? zombie virus is base of it after all. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jun 30 '20 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @LiJun, rabies kills too fast and have very low infection rate. Trumors give more time to live (months instead of days) and to bite - they are less aggressive. But they also need more time to form. $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Jun 30 '20 at 8:35

I think that to get zombie-like behaviour (aggression, esp. biting), you need to combine two different factors.

  1. You need to get rid of normal human inhibitions. Those are quite deep down given by both our genetics and culture. An extreme, unbearable pain could be a good one (also could help you with limited joint movement to get the stiff zombie walk). When in extreme pain, people won't care about manners, comforts, hygiene, etc. For an added bit, the increased blood pressure in head when lying down, or trying to stand up, makes the pain so bad that your zombies prefer to rest (maybe with virtually no sleep for weeks to add some severe sleep deprivation) while standing, just leaning against a wall or something. There are zombies lying down in some films but most often they don't. Similar effect can be given by severe starvation, when a body is deprived of nutrients, the brain starts shutting down higher cognitive functions. This leads greatly into the other point:

  2. You need to be hungry, very very very hungry, so that once your inhibitions are inhibited, you won't only be willing (and craving!) to eat any food around, including human flesh, but that even the sight of a piece of human skin would make you go and attack (and bite). An expert on starvation might correct me, but from what I heard, I understood that while starving from not eating anything at all is relatively less painful, it's much worse (although delaying the death) to eat very little but not nothing. I like the fungus idea by ProjectApex in the comment, that it could be a fungus. Well, imagine the fungus "stealing" glucose (and possibly ketones or anything else!) from your blood, leaving just enough for a very slow, debilitating and painful death, while leaving you able to walk, bite, and to some extent fight. This would need to couple with it speeding up your digestion, otherwise you'd be starving with a full stomach! (That got a bit dark, but hey, zombies ARE a very dark topic indeed!)

Finally, the fungus could easily explain why the zombies don't try to eat each other!

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    $\begingroup$ In actuality, the feeling of hunger and of satisfaction are actually controlled mainly by the hormones ghrelin and leptin respectively, so the fungus doesn't even need to steal away the nutrients and glucose. Simply producing a hormone similar to ghrelin while inhibiting the fullness signal given off by leptin will convert the already less morally inhibited infected into crazy eating machines that won't stop until they burst and won't feel satisfied no matter how full they are (just a little darker suggestion to an answer about a dark topic) :-). $\endgroup$ Jul 1 '20 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding hunger, you're right. As the amount of reserves decreases, the brain starts considering alternatives it normally wouldn't, such as a rotten-looking apple, an animal or your nearly departed friend that died shortly before you. This can be seen in many cases of rescued victims who had to wait to long, running out of food and resorting to cannibalism, at times having to kill some of the survivors so the rest had what to eat until help came (see leningrad, one of the many tragedies of WW2). $\endgroup$ Jul 1 '20 at 0:46

I'm not a big fan of "zombie viruses". 28 Days Later may be the best of these, it's a rabanoid virus by the looks, the zombies eventually die of starvation, and the method of transmission means it might be possible to affect the victims as quickly as depicted. But generally it's a bad plot device.

You've got a few problems with the mechanism of hostility/aggression. But nothing that can't be fixed with a little hand-wavium. Instead of it infecting the sites of the bites, this will metastasize. Tasmanian Devil disease is a transmissible cancer... the cancer cells originated on an individual many decades ago, but his cell line lives on in others. Just before it kills them.

The Tasmanian devils aren't biting because of the disease, they're just nasty little shits always fighting each other. Maladaptive behaviors, eh?

We do need your variant to affect the brain. And massively. You want extremely intense aggression, you want physical debilitation, lack of reason (or even personality). That affects all parts of the brain, so a purely mechanical etiology is out. This cancer will preferentially attack the human brain. All lobes, or almost all of them. But we can also throw in some skin lesions and general necrosis to give you the zombie look.

The cancer's aggressive growth means that even if oncological treatments worked, they're biting their doctors long before they can get a course of chemo. And the brain damage is so extensive that the condition will be irreversible too, if that matters to you.

This won't be a "3 hours later, full zombie" thing. The tumors themselves that cause this will be small (but many of them, thousands) which is enough to cause the change sin behavior and the icky looking sores and blooshot eyes and so forth. Probably looking at least 24 hours before infection spurs full conversion, but if the story allows and you want it to be more realistic, longer would be better. 72 hours, or even a full week would be enough for pea-sized tumors to occur.

Realistically, these things will burn out really quickly too. They get a few days of shambling around at most. Some percentage of them would go really quickly, when the tumors infiltrate vital organs other than the brain. If it gets the heart or the lungs or kidneys, they'd probably drop before the other zombies. A few others will just stroke out when the tumors in the brain pinch off blood flow. Conversion rate won't go above 60% or 70%, the rest will just be made dead quick, possibly even before they could attack others. A smaller number might display truly bizarre (not necessarily zombie) behavior, as the infection randomly ruins parts of their brains. OCD behaviors, walking in circles, whatever.

Classic zombie mob scenes might not work. There's no plausible mechanism for them to refrain from attacking each other. Not sure that's necessary though.


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