Pufferfish Zombies

By Kyj Mandzy, Bellarmine University

Blowfish or puffer fish in oceanOn April 30, 1962, Clairvius Narcisse was checked into Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti. His symptoms included fever, body aches, respiratory issues, and coughing up blood. Three days later, Clairvius Narcisse was pronounced dead. Narcisse’s life story turned downright bizarre when eighteen years later, his sister was approached by a man claiming to be her brother. He identified himself by a nickname only known to immediate family and told her he had survived in a zombie-like state.

While the concept of “zombies” is usually only found in Hollywood, Narcisse’s story may reveal some fact behind the fiction of zombies. In 1982, two neurologists began investigating the apparent “zombification” of Clairvius Narcisse. The testimony of Clairvius Narcisse’s physicians, family, and neighbors convinced the investigating team that it was indeed the same man who was proclaimed dead. However, such testimony still did not reveal how a man could be pronounced dead, buried, and then return to life.

Another investigator, Wade Davis, would go on to publish The Serpent and the Rainbow, a controversial book detailing the zombification practices of Haiti. Davis obtained numerous samples of a powder used by bokors (local sorcerers), and identified 3 consistent elements: ground bones, urticating hairs from arachnids, and puffer fish. The bones in the powder have no pharmacological effect and the arachnid hairs are only an irritant if placed in contact with skin. But puffer fish contain Tetrodotoxin, which can cause malaise, respiratory difficulties, hypotension, hypothermia, and complete paralysis if ingested.

Tetrodotoxin, the purported agent for the “zombification,” is a potent neurotoxin found in certain organs of puffer fish, toadfish, and globefish. Tetrodotoxin is not produced endogenously by these animals, but rather by symbiotic bacteria dwelling within the animals. Tetrodotoxin is both used as a defensive biotoxin to ward off predators as well as predatory venom. Tetrodotoxin blocks the function of select voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSC), which are large transmembrane proteins that control the flow of sodium ions into cells. Neurons (nerve cells) rely on VGSC-regulated sodium flux to carry messages from one end of the cell to another, and so when Tetrodotoxin binds to VGSC several components of the nervous system temporarily stop working correctly.

Puffer fish are consumed in Japan where it is referred to as fugu and is considered a delicacy. Tetrodotoxin is generally found in the viscera of the fish and is removed by skilled chefs. Most of the time, the levels of Tetrodotoxin are minimal and only result in a mild prickling of the tongue. However, diners do occasionally lapse into complete paralysis. Their heartbeat and breathing fall into impercievable levels, and some are even pronounced dead and later revived in morgues. While this is not as dramatic as Hollywood’s explanations for zombies, the idea of sitting down to dinner and waking up in the morgue is enough to frighten anyone.

Tetrodotoxin has proven to have potentially beneficial uses. Currently oncology research is looking at subcutaneous Tetrodotoxin injections to relieve cancer related pains. Tetrodotoxin was found to have an analgesic effect for minor pain with no complications of toxicity and is now being looked at to manage severe pain. While zombie apocalypses and people rising from the dead will remain things of fiction, it is exciting to contemplate the possibility of such potentially dangerous toxins being used to improve lives.

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