As they say, behind every great man and woman is a cat-bred parasite calling the shots. Kathleen McAuliffe has uncovered some fairly old studies and insights that show three in ten people are infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii or T. gondii or Toxo for short. This parasite is commonly found in cat feces and according to Czech evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flegr, the parasite could be rewiring animals brains.
The Atlantic reports.
If Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”
“There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.” Another more obvious reason for resistance, of course, is that Flegr’s notions sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans.
What’s more, many experts think T. gondii may be far from the only microscopic puppeteer capable of pulling our strings. “My guess is that there are scads more examples of this going on in mammals, with parasites we’ve never even heard of.”
Jaroslav Flegr talked more freely with Kathleen McAuliffe about his own experiences.
He thought nothing of crossing the street in the middle of dense traffic, “and if cars honked at me, I didn’t jump out of the way.” He also made no effort to hide his scorn for the Communists who ruled Czechoslovakia for most of his early adulthood. “It was very risky to openly speak your mind at that time,” he says. “I was lucky I wasn’t imprisoned.” And during a research stint in eastern Turkey, when the strife-torn region frequently erupted in gunfire, he recalls being “very calm.” In contrast, he says, “my colleagues were terrified. I wondered what was wrong with myself.”
Once inside an animal or human host, the parasite then needs to get back into the cat, the only place where it can sexually reproduce—and this is when, Flegr believed, behavioral manipulation might come into play.
The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.
Compared with uninfected people of the same sex, infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. And when it came to downing the mystery fluid, reports Flegr, “the infected males were much more hesitant than uninfected men. They wanted to know why they had to do it. Would it harm them?” In contrast, the infected women were the most trusting of all subjects. “They just did what they were told,”
“No,” he says, “the parasite’s effects on personality are very subtle.” If, as a woman, you were introverted before being infected, he says, the parasite won’t turn you into a raving extrovert. It might just make you a little less introverted. “I’m very typical of Toxoplasma males,” he continues. “But I don’t know whether my personality traits have anything to do with the infection. It’s impossible to say for any one individual. You usually need about 50 people who are infected and 50 who are not, in order to see a statistically significant difference. The vast majority of people will have no idea they’re infected.”
Joanne Webster, a parasitologist at Imperial College London presents her research.
They treated one corner of each rat’s enclosure with the animal’s own odor, a second with water, a third with cat urine, and the last corner with the urine of a rabbit, a creature that does not prey on rodents. “We thought the parasite might reduce the rats’ aversion to cat odor,” she told me. “Not only did it do that, but it actually increased their attraction. They spent more time in the cat-treated areas.” She and other scientists repeated the experiment with the urine of dogs and minks, which also prey on rodents. The effect was so specific to cat urine, she says, that “we call it ‘fatal feline attraction.’”
“We were quite surprised to find the cysts—the parasite’s dormant form—all over the brain in what otherwise appeared to be a happy, healthy rat,” she says. Nonetheless, the cysts were most abundant in a part of the brain that deals with pleasure (in human terms, we’re talking sex, drugs, and rock and roll) and in another area that’s involved in fear and anxiety (post-traumatic stress disorder affects this region of the brain). Perhaps, she thought, T. gondii uses a scattershot approach, disseminating cysts far and wide, enabling a few of them to zero in on the right targets.
In other words, Toxo makes cat odor smell sexy to male rats.
Robert Sapolsky’s lab at Stanford announced still more attention-grabbing news. The neuroscientist and his colleagues found that T. gondii disconnects fear circuits in the brain, which might help to explain why infected rats lose their aversion to cat odor. Just as startling, reports Sapolsky, the parasite simultaneously is “able to hijack some of the circuitry related to sexual arousal” in the male rat—probably, he theorizes, by boosting dopamine levels in the reward-processing part of the brain. So when the animal catches a whiff of cat scent, the fear center fails to fully light up, as it would in a normal rat, and instead the area governing sexual pleasure begins to glow. “In other words,” he says, “Toxo makes cat odor smell sexy to male rats.”
When the rat copulates, Vyas discovered, the protozoan moves into the female’s womb, typically infecting 60 percent of her pups, before traveling on up to her own brain—creating still more vehicles for ferrying the parasite back into the belly of a cat.
Chris Reiber, a biomedical anthropologist at Binghamton University, in New York, strongly suspected that the flu virus might boost our desire to socialize. Why? Because it spreads through close physical contact, often before symptoms emerge—meaning that it must find a new host quickly. To explore this hunch, Moore and Reiber tracked 36 subjects who received a flu vaccine, reasoning that it contains many of the same chemical components as the live virus and would thus cause the subjects’ immune systems to react as if they’d encountered the real pathogen.
Reiber has her eye trained on other human pathogens that she thinks may well be playing similar games, if only science could prove it. For example, she says, many people at the end stages of AIDS and syphilis express an intense craving for sex. So, too, do individuals at the beginning of a herpes outbreak. These may just be anecdotal accounts, she concedes, but based on her own findings, she wouldn’t be surprised if these urges come from the pathogen making known its will to survive.
It’s a bit too soon to presume that many of your habits are the consequence of a kitten puppetmaster. But, I have always been personally suspicious of cats. The greater potential for discovery is in finding other types of parasite that seems to rewire certain functions to ensure their survival. I certainly have more respect for the resilience of life at any cost.