Psychology in the News

October 5, 2007

Zombie Drug?

Filed under: drugs — Tags: , , , — intro2psych @ 1:15 pm

By Alex Rodabaugh

Recently, a friend showed me a horrific news story set in Columbia where a mysterious drug known as the “Zombie Drug” has become popular in carrying out crime. The drug is said to cause the user to become just what the drug’s name implies, a zombie. A person who is under the influence of this drug has no control over his actions. They are at the complete will of the people making suggestions to them. One example described in the story is of a man who, after becoming conscious, realizes he’s been mugged and that thousands of dollars have been stolen from him. When he goes to the police to investigate, they show him a video of himself walking into his bank, withdrawing his money and meeting people outside.
At first I was in shock and disbelief, trying to figure out why I had never heard of this drug and why it wasn’t known or discussed in the United States. The news story only describes the drug as an extract from the Borrachero tree found in Columbia and neighboring countries. It wasn’t until I began studying for our most recent quiz that I realized why the drugs name sounded so familiar. The drug is none other than Scopalomine! We learned that the drug is a blocker of Acetylcholine, which allows the brain to learn new associations in conditioning. Animals who are given Scopalomine do not learn these new associations and are not conditioned. (Scopolamine is also available in a patch, to control motion sickness.)

This raises the question, then, does the inability to be conditioned to a response (the blocking of Acetylcholine) also cause someone to become unable to refuse other’s suggestions? Or, does Scopalomine do more than just block this neurotransmitter? Perhaps more study with this drug can help us understand how the brain works. However, one thing is for sure, let’s hope the Scopalomine stays in the labs and off of the streets.

The original video from the reporter on can be seen here. THis is fairly long and requires Flash player. A summary report on CNN can be found here. This is shorter, but also requires Flash player.

1 Comment »

  1. The drug scopolamine has had multiple purposes over the years, including use as a treatment for motion sickness, a sedative, and a “truth serum”. The fact that one drug has so many uses is not surprising, since scopolamine works to block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Neurotransmitters are known to have multiple effects on the body, many of which are not known or understood completely. Although acetylcholine is one of the better understood neurotransmitters, there are still many mysteries surrounding it—one being why blocking it can have such strange effects on humans.

    After looking at a few of the many side effects of scopolamine—blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, and drowsiness, I can see where a combination of just a few of those effects could turn a person into a kind of zombie. They almost seem to form the description of a sleep-walker. Naturally, a person is more likely to be passive when their responses are dulled and confused. Scopolamine, a depressant of the central nervous system, does just that.

    As stated in the original post, perhaps the most interesting and puzzling question is how scopolamine’s negative affect on conditioning relates to the actions of those on the “zombie drug.” Before researching the drug, I would have said that people obey the criminals’ commands because they don’t have the ability to recall what they have learned in the past about right and wrong actions. This, however, does not explain the victim’s actions since scopolamine does not affect stored memories or their retrieval—only the storage of new memories.

    Although scopolamine surely affects the brain in unknown ways, I’m tempted to believe that some of the victims of the drug had been threatened by the criminals and simply reacted as any normal person would by trying to appease them. To bystanders, a person on scopolamine would probably appear to be in a zombie-like state, due to its numerous side effects. Ultimately, the scopolamine would simply act as a type of memory-eraser after the crime is committed, leaving the victim confused and unable to recognize the offender.

    Comment by Gelsie Isgro — October 10, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

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