Microbes May Be Controlling Your Mind, Says ASU Biodesign Researcher

ASU assistant professor Athena Aktipis spoke to dozens of guests May 8 at Match Restaurant & Lounge in downtown Phoenix. Her talk, titled “Zombies are Real: Are Microbes Controlling My Mind?,” explained the role your microbiome plays in your body and behavior.

It was the final talk in the Biodesign Institute’s inaugural “Sip of Science” series, which brought together scientists and the public at Valley restaurants.

“Who we are is not just our cells, but also all these microbes,” said Aktipis, a psychology professor and Biodesign faculty associate. “Whether they can completely hijack us for their own evolutionary purposes, the jury is still out. But there are many examples of microbes that can affect our neural signaling” — possibly controlling our minds.

Microbes are tiny organisms like bacteria. They live in your body, but they are not human cells. Aktipis related this science to the audience with a zombie metaphor. She defines a zombie as “an individual whose physiology or behavior are fully, or partially, under the control of a genetically distinct individual or population.”

You may be the host for these “zombie” microbes. Some microbes are beneficial to their host, some are harmful, and some can switch between being one or the other. Aktipis described two examples of microbial parasites that appear to alter animals’ behavior. One, Toxoplasma gondii, has been associated with increased risk-taking behavior.

Microbes can produce hormones and neurotransmitters that change the way our brains function, Aktipis said. Microbiome diversity has been associated with things like anxiety and depression. These mind control abilities appear to be an accidental result of natural selection. The microbes are not sentient, but these qualities help them reproduce.

In fact, the body may be nurturing beneficial microbes. According to Aktipis, new research suggests the immune system does not just eliminate harmful microbes. Microbes can help the immune system do its job. “It’s almost like our body is feeding these microbes,” she said.

Aktipis also took audience questions throughout the talk. She is organizing a zombie-themed conference in October to expand on this topic. The Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting at ASU will feature a diverse group of academics, writers, and filmmakers. The “Sip of Science” series will return next spring.