How the puffer fish gets you high, zombifies you, and kills you

Puffer fish, or fugu, is well-known for being a dish that stands a good chance of killing the person it's served to. But people still eat it — partly because some people like living life on the edge, but mostly because all people like getting high. Find out how the puffer fish helps them get there.

The puffer fish, any one of the family of tetraodontidae, protects itself in the wild by gulping down water and swelling up its belly to make itself look bigger. It does this because, apparently, it can't find a way to communicate the simple message, "I am poisonous." These fish are considered the second most poisonous vertebrates in the world. They contain a toxin 1,200 more deadly than cyanide. It's in their skin, their ovaries, their gonads, and their liver. One fish can kill thirty people.

So of course it seems like a spin worthy of Barnum to label them a 'delicacy,' and charge hundreds of dollars a serving for them. A closer examination of the work that goes into making puffer fish, or fugu, shows that the price is fair. Fugu chefs have to be trained for two years, during which they will eat many of the fish that they themselves prepare. And make no mistake, people do die from fugu poisoning. About five people a year make puffer fish their last meal, and many more get violently sick from it. It's not a pleasant way to go.

The poison, tetrodotoxin, is actually produced by the bacteria that the fish allows to colonize its various parts. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin, meaning it takes out the nervous system as it moves through the body. This may sound like a relatively painless death, with the brain going offline quickly. That's not the case. The toxin starts with the extremities. The first place people notice it is in the lips. Then the fingers. There's a tingling numbness, and a loss of control. This is a sign that it's time to get to the hospital. The toxin moves inwards from there, taking out the muscles, often causing weakness, while paradoxically bringing on vomiting and diarrhea. Then tetrodotoxin hits the diaphragm. This is the large, muscular membrane in the chest that lets the lungs breathe in and out. The respiratory system is paralyzed while the person is still fully conscious. Eventually the toxin does get to the brain, but only after the person involved has felt their body being paralyzed completely, entombing them inside. Even then, some people aren't lucky enough to completely lose consciousness. There are people who report being conscious, either occasionally or continually, throughout their coma.

These people may still be luckier than some puffer fish victims. Wade Davis, who wrote about the famous Clairvius Narcisse case of a person becoming a 'zombie,' claimed that puffer fish toxin, along with other neurotoxins, was used to first make a person seem dead, then take out their higher brain function and cause them to become a zombie. Davis' research, though initially promising when rats rubbed with the toxin became sluggish and seemed 'zombified,' has been called into question. Some people now think that Narcisse was simply mentally ill, and Davis had coached or at least been too willing to believe his story.

How the puffer fish gets you high, zombifies you, and kills you


Still, with the threat of horrible death via full-body paralysis and the chance to be a mindless zombie, why people eat puffer fish at all seems a mystery. If someone were serving up a steaming bowl of strychnine, there wouldn't be any takers (unless it was from one of those darling gourmet food trucks). It turns out that neurotoxins, though vicious killers, get people pretty high, provided the doses are low enough. One scientist, who had been bitten by a snake with neurotoxic venom, described it as the kind of peaceful light-headed feeling that people are supposed to get in the last few moments before they drown. That, combined with a tingling body, is enough to risk lives for. In fact, one of the complaints of fugu enthusiasts is that the chefs know their business too well, and too cleanly remove the organs from the fish, leaving just thin, safe slices of fish for the disappointed guests to eat. Some guests dredge their portions lightly in the toxin to feel the tingle. Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, an famous actor, deliberately ordered four fugu livers to feel the rush and claimed the poison wouldn't hurt him. He died seven hours later.

The face of fugu may be changing, though. Fisheries have begun breeding fugu in environments free of the bacteria that produce the poison. These fish are harmless, and can be prepared and served by anyone. Naturally, this is getting kick back from both ends of the spectrum. Consumers aren't quite as interested in the puffer fish if it's just another fish. Meanwhile the National Fugu Association won't hear of serving fugu liver, even if it doesn't contain the toxin. Looks like the only thing worse than a fish that can kill you, is a fish that can't.

Top Image: Mila Zinkova

Fugu Sashimi Image: Wikimedia Commons

Via Time, Miami.edu, How Stuff Works, The Many Faces of Death, and the NY Times.