If you can smell a zombie, you can be a zombie.

Lan-Caihe is real, or so Will Sargent told me via Twitter, this evening while Squid and I were doing our best impersonations of Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole at a bar near my workplace. Will was, of course, referencing this story, in which a disease called Lan-Caihe (named for an eccentric Chinese deity whose sole defining characteristic seemed to be unpredictability and capriciousness) ravages the techno-factories of Shenzhen. Snip:

Lan-Caihe is a degenerative brain disorder that, like Alzheimer’s, erodes the myelin sheaths around the neural synapses of the insular cortex. However, unlike Alzheimer’s or its pre-cursor, dementia, Lan-Caihe blooms first in the judgement centres of the brain, specifically the anterior insula, which is crucial to “simulating” or “predicting” outcomes of a particular situation, as well as generating reactions of empathy by hosting mirror neurons in other brain centres that process feelings of pain and disgust.

Sufferers are seemingly incapable of accurate threat assessment, seeing subtle shifts in posture or tones of voice as indicative of another person’s violent intent. They react to the slightest provocation with intense fear or rage, their brains having short-circuited their ability to understand the difference between the jostling of a crowded subway car and a group assault. As the disease advances, random explosions of uncontrollable violence are the result. Patients grow increasingly dissociated from reality, often remembering threats and insults that never happened despite being presented with evidence to the contrary in the form of security footage and other documentation. In the final phase of the disease, patients enter “zombie mode,” suffering a complete break with reality that often causes accidental death or requires lethal intervention from police or other authorities.

I wrote that this August, after editor Rudy Rucker asked me very nicely to comment on some aspects of contemporary culture. Fast forward to January, when Will tells me that prion disease can spread through the air. Prion diseases are so named for the proteins that cause degenerative brain disorders in mammals. Previously, we thought that prion diseases only arrived via infected blood or meat (as in the case of “mad cow” disease). Now lab testing indicates that the disease may also be airborne, with prions crossing the blood-brain barrier via nerves in the nasal system.

In other words, if you can smell a zombie, you can be a zombie.

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