The Mind Controlling Fungus

Most people see mind-controlling as something out of science fiction or out of a villain's superpowers because it seems physically impossible to perform this in the real world. What’s more odd is that some authors characterized mushrooms as having the ability to infect minds like in the video game, The Last of Us. These, however, are all examples that don’t exist in the real world, but what if there was a parasitic fungus that could hijack and control the brains of its victims?

A cordyceps infected ant.

The concept seems scary already, but the reality is even scarier as these mushrooms actually exist and they are called the cordyceps fungus. They are mushrooms that live commonly in Asia, tropical rain forests, and jungles and they take carnivorous plants to a whole other level.

Cordyceps is a genus of ascomycete fungi (sac fungi) that thrive in humid environments. They come from the cordycipitaceae family and they were first recorded in 1694 by a pharmacist named Wang Ang in China. It was later named Cordyceps Sinensis in 1878 by Saccardo who was an Italian scholar. Their habitats consist of low-quality soil and competition among other plants so they have adapted to gain nutrients from insects and arthropods. This makes them an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that acts as a parasite to insects).

Another cordyceps infected ant.

Thankfully, humans are entirely immune to the cordyceps fungus due to our well-developed immune systems being able to resist their spores. On the other hand, insects such as flies, ants, beetles, and moths are more susceptible to the cordyceps fungus.

Insects and anthropods are the main prey of cordyceps, so don’t worry.

This mushroom attacks by shooting microscopic spores in the air to land on these insects and burrow in their flesh. From there, the spores start to germinate within the insect, feeding on the fatty tissues for nutrients. This continues for around 4–5 days until the spores have developed long enough to create cells called hyphae which produce mycelium within the body. Mycelium consists of thin white filaments that grow out of the spore and bury into the living tissue.

These mycelium threads act as a marionette, using its threads to spread around the insect’s body like a neural network. These threads then control the insect’s movement and manipulate its mind! But what does the fungus do with the insect?

A network of mycelium.

The cordyceps’ use for the insect is to reproduce, and there is a process for that. Once the fungus takes control, it directs the insect upwards to a spot where the humidity and temperature are optimal for the fungus’ growth. From there, it either forces the insect to use its mandibles to grip itself on a branch or it produces a liquid that glues the insect to the branch. The last part of this phase is when the insect shoots its wings (if it has any) upwards. From there, the fungus kills the insect.

This is the time where the fungus sprouts out of the insect, bursting through the victim in a mushroom-like form. Spores grow all over the body and with wings out of the way, the spores get launched in the air. The higher the insect is perched, the more likely the spores are going to catch a breeze and land onto any insect in the vicinity. From there, the process begins again and goes into a loop.

Insects near an infected insect are at serious risk of death (Credit: Tommy Leung).

There are around 400 species of cordyceps and miraculously, each species specializes in infecting a single species of insects. This fungus can be so deadly it can wipe out a colony of over 8 million ants. Some insects have adapted to sense the approaching danger by avoiding any cordyceps infected insects. Some ants even carry infected worker ants away as far as possible from the colony to avoid being contaminated. With the endless destruction of insects, you’d think this fungus is a pest, but there is a benefit to its attacks.

If a species of insects overpopulate an area in the rainforest, they will be more likely to get infected by a cordyceps fungus so these mushrooms help balance out the ecosystem.

Medical Benefits of the Cordyceps Fungus

A species of cordyceps called the caterpillar fungus contains medical properties we can use. These mushrooms have already been used for Chinese medicines for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, and kidney diseases. Even today, there are health benefits we can gain from this fungus so here are three benefits.

These dried caterpillars can be used for medicinal purposes.

Boosts Exercise Performance: Cordyceps increases the body’s production of the molecule adenosine triphosphate, which delivers energy to the muscles. This improves the way your body uses oxygen which is useful for exercising. In a study, researchers tested 30 older adults and gave them 3 grams of a synthetic strain of cordyceps called CS-4 or a placebo pill every day for 6 weeks.

By the end of the test, VO2 max levels(a measurement used to determine fitness level) had increased by 7% for people who took CS-4 while participants who took the placebo pill showed no change. Another study tested the effects of a cordyceps blend in young adults and after three weeks, their VO2 max increased by 11%. However, the effects of cordyceps are not effective in boosting the VO2 max of well-trained athletes.

Benefits for Heart Health: Cordyceps are approved in China for the treatment of arrhythmia which is a condition where the heartbeat is unstable. A study showed that cordyceps reduces heart injury in rats with chronic kidney disease. Injuries to the heart from chronic kidney disease increase the risk of heart failure, so reducing these injuries will help avoid this outcome.

Cordyceps is also beneficial for lowering cholesterol levels as it decreases LDL (LDL builds up cholesterol in your arteries which causes heart disease). Lastly, cordyceps are proven to lower triglyceride levels (a type of fat in your blood) in mice in a study. Higher levels of triglyceride can lead to early heart disease so this is extremely beneficial for stopping that.

Potential Anti Tumor Effects: Researchers believe that the cordyceps fungus may exert anti-tumor effects in several different ways which have sparked the interest of many scientists. In test-tube studies, cordyceps have inhibited the growth of many types of cancer cells including lung, colon, skin, and liver cells. Studies in mice have also shown that cordyceps have anti-tumor effects on lymphoma, melanoma, and lung cancer.

This fungus may also have the power to reverse the side effects of cancer therapy like leukopenia. Leukopenia is a condition where the number of white blood cells in your body decreases which lowers your body’s defenses and increases your risk of getting infected. Reversing leukopenia has been proven to work with mice as a study tested the effects of cordyceps on mice that have developed leukopenia. In the end, the fungus reversed the effects, but keep in mind these effects were tested in animals and test-tubes so we are not 100% sure if it is safe for humans.

Cordyceps can be prescribed by your family doctor.

It is amazing to see what nature can perform in the real world, like the cordyceps fungus. This mushroom can be disturbing at times, but it can also be fascinating and sometimes, magical like something out of science fiction. The medical potential in the fungus is incredible as well since we can use it to gain better exercise performance, heart health, and produce anti-tumor effects. This proves that even the most obscure things in nature can have value to humans, so next time you see nature, treat it with a little respect because it could end up helping your lives.

TL;DR

  • Cordyceps Sinensis is a type of parasitic fungus that lives in Asia and tropical rainforests.
  • Insects and arthropods are the main targets of the cordyceps, not humans.
  • The fungus attacks insects by shooting microscopic spores that grow hyphae within the victim. It then grows out of the insect and shoots more spores, restarting the process.
  • Cordyceps can help maintain balance in an ecosystem by lowering the population of a dominating species.
  • A species of cordyceps called the caterpillar fungus contains beneficial properties such as better exercise performance, better heart health, and potential anti-tumor effects.

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