Israeli scientists have recently discovered how a jewel wasp’s sting controls the mind of a cockroach, opening the door to understanding the neurobiology of free will.

Dr. Ram Gal, a scientist at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel, who leads the study reports:

The brain sting is the most important step in a highly specialized process [of “zombifying” its victim]. It leaves the cockroach’s sensory and motor systems working fine, but something else has changed. In humans, we would call this thing free will.

What the wasp does after this is worthy of any Hollywood horror film, zombie or otherwise.

The process to create a zombie cockroach slave begins when a pregnant female jewel wasp is in need of a hatchery for her fertilized eggs.  That’s where an unfortunate cockroach comes in.  Spying its walking incubator, the wasp swoops in and stings it in the thorax, briefly paralyzing the front legs.

While the cockroach is paralyzed, the wasp then inserts it’s long stinger into the base of its head, and delivers a cocktail of venom into its brain, which has two effects.  The first is to cause the cockroach to obsessively start to groom itself, keeping it busy while the wasp flies away to find a nest, and the second is to ultimately turn it into a subservient slave.  The penultimate question the researchers wanted to have answered was how the wasp was able to find the miniscule brain of the cockroach.

It turns out the stinger on the wasp has two types of sensors: one for feeling and one for tasting, both of which are necessary to locate the brain.  The other mystery still to be explained is what exactly is in the venom and how does it interact with the victim’s brain. Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to explain how the wasp commandeers the cockroach’s free will.

They think the answer will have applications for other animals, even people. Dr. Ram Gal explains:

Insects aren’t, in fact, that different from humans. The main difference is in complexity, but the building blocks are the same. We think if we understand insects’ internal representation of the external world, it may give us some clues about what happens in ‘higher’ organisms – like us.

The cockroach could escape or fight back at any time.  It is still capable of doing so, but doesn’t.

So the horror story continues.  The wasp returns after locating a suitable nest and bites off the cockroach’s antennae.  Obviously peckish from all that work, the wasp sucks some nutrients out of the antennae stumps, and then leads the cockroach into the nest. It lays a single egg on the insect, and flies away (not before blocking the door).  The egg eventually hatches, feeds off of the living cockroach’s blood, and then builds a cocoon inside it’s abdomen.  And a month later… it’s alien chest-bursting time!

Here it is in chilling explicit detail…

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