Cordyceps is a fungus that slowly infiltrates the body in order to take over the brain, at least that’s the case if you happen to be a catepillar or an ant. But is the cordyceps brain infection real in humans? Thankfully, cordyceps cannot infect the human brain, and is actually quite beneficial for us.
But where did the folklore of cordyceps being a “zombie” fungus and infecting humans come from? It actually derived from a video game.
Cordyceps and ‘The Last of Us’ Video Game
Not a rare occurrence, but I have had a few people tell me that they are concerned Cordyceps might actually infect humans, and such misinformation is one that I wanted to rectify, by breaking down what the video game has created, and explaining why an infection with Cordyceps in humans similar to the version in The Last of Us video game is not possible, thankfully! But if you’re interested this video does a good job explaining what the writers of the video game came up with. It’s pretty creative! They just applied what happens to ants and caterpillars when they encounter cordyceps to humans.
In the real world, Cordyceps is a genus of fungus that includes hundreds of species. The fungi aren’t attempting to infect humans, but they may cause significant damage to insects.
In China, a kind of fungus known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis infects ghost moth larvae and is seen as a valuable prize linked with sexual vigour. However, the form of cordyceps most of us are acquainted with is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which targets carpenter ants exclusively.
In carpenter ants, the fungus takes control of the muscles in its path. Shortly before death, the ant will leave the colony at sunset and search for a high-hanging leaf or limb to clasp it in its jaws. The ant is suspended from the roof until it dies, at which point the fungus releases spores that rain down on unsuspecting individuals. It’s been dubbed “zombie fungus” as a result of this process, which takes place in the dead of night.
Can Cordyceps Infect Humans?
Again, no, cordyceps cannot infect humans. But what if it could? Let’s explore what’s happening to ants when they are infected
Cordyceps works by having its spores land on the insects body and implant themselves into its muscles. The spores then take over the insect, forcing it to migrate to an area ideal for the fungus to replicate. The fungus forces the insect to climb to a desired height, bite down on a leaf or stem, allowing the fungus fruiting body to grow out of the body of its host.
And it will stay there, too, until it dies. The parasite will eat from the creature, growing over a period of weeks, then release more spores and infect more insects.
Now, how will that work if this happens to you? If this fungal pest can hop from bug to person, then this is probably going to be an airborne infection. Places such as cities, mass transit, and tunnels would be all danger zones in which the cordyceps fungus could be spread easily from person to person. It is very possible the fungus will attack your body just as it does with every other pest.
When you are first infected, you will start feeling a few symptoms you may have felt before. A fever, stomachaches, weakness, and vomiting are all possible effects.
You may even notice that you are feeling drowsy, because cordyceps may impact dopamine levels. Some of those effects may be familiar, but the one that is not is the way that the fungus will travel throughout your body. As time went by, the fungus would begin taking over your nervous system. Because you are much bigger than things like insects, it would take months before Cordyceps took full control of you.
As that happens, the fungus will grow all over your arms and legs. When it has spread enough throughout your body, it could take over you. You could try to do everything in your power to fend it off, but once it is in your system, there is not much you can really do. Your brain will still run, but you will not control what it does. After all, Cordyceps main goal is to disperse as much as possible.
And in order to do this, it will suck you into a closed off area, where it can grow, then expand even farther into your body. After a couple weeks, you would die inside this place. And now that you are dead, the fungus, the cordyceps, could keep spreading, turning you into something called fruiting bodies. That is when spores and the fungus will begin coming out of you.
They would come out from anywhere where there was no solid bone blocking their path. And now that it is happened, the fungus and the spores could spread further, contaminating more and more people. Fortunately, we do not need to fear this kind of thing happening to us. Cordyceps cannot infect humans, because our bodies are better than the insects at fighting off the pathogen. In fact, Cordyceps is extremely beneficial to humans, and is commonly consumed as a supplement. Basically it’s just like any old mushroom.
So you can relax knowing that you won’t become a zombie because of this stuff.
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