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Is Fluffy Making You Loopy?


Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s now discovering will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia? A biologist’s science- fiction hunch is gaining credence and shaping the emerging science of mind- controlling parasites.

So begins an extensive article in The Atlantic that might look at first like a re-run of the old worries that parasites from cats can cause various human diseases. It turns out to be a much more interesting and thoughtful piece of research to do with how parasites can invade all manner of animals and cause us to do things we wouldn’t want to do.

Czech scientist Jarosalv Flegr is an unconventional yet meticulous scientist who has thought for years that parasites are messing with his mind and manipulating his personality.

42-19879541The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii (or just Toxo), can be found in the feces of certain cats. It’s why pregnant women are sometimes warned to avoid cat litter in order not to transmit toxoplasmosis to the baby. The dangers of Toxo used to be seriously exaggerated. If your cat has it (indoor cats barely ever have it, some outdoor cats may have it for a brief period in their lives), and if you contract it, the most you’re likely to experience is brief flu-like symptoms.

But Flegr started developing the idea that there might be more going on, and started tying his own experience (he did test positive) together with other scientific literature showing how parasites of all kinds are causing us and other animals to behave in ways that are more beneficial to the parasite than they are to us.

Renowned neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, an expert in primate behavior, thinks Flegr is onto something.

Recent findings from Sapolsky’s lab and British groups suggest that the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans. T. gondii, reports Sapolsky, can turn a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into an attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator.

Even more amazing is how it does this: the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal. “Overall,” says Sapolsky, “this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.”

Another academic heavyweight who takes Flegr seriously is the schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, in Maryland. “I admire Jaroslav for doing [this research],” he says. “It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that not many labs are doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”

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,” says Sapolsky.

Flegr cites the example of how a flatworm can turn an ant into its slave by invading the ant’s nervous system:

A drop in temperature normally causes ants to head underground, but the infected insect instead climbs to the top of a blade of grass and clamps down on it, becoming easy prey for a grazing sheep. “Its mandibles actually become locked in that position, so there’s nothing the ant can do except hang there in the air,” says Flegr. The sheep grazes on the grass and eats the ant; the worm gains entrance into the ungulate’s gut, which is exactly where it needs to be in order to complete—as the Lion King song goes—the circle of life

Are you in any danger from your cat? Not really. Indoor cats are most unlikely to have it. Outdoor cats shed the parasite for only three weeks of their life, typically when they’re young and have just begun hunting. During that brief period, Flegr recommends taking care to keep kitchen counters and tables wiped clean.

Those who are concerned about contracting Toxo are, in fact, better advised to stop eating meat, since the parasite can be carried by cattle. (And heaven only knows what parasites are up to at a typical factory farm!) If you eat meat, the same rules apply as with avoiding E. coli and other bacteria: wash everything, cook well, and so on.

More interesting than the kitty connection, though, is the entire subject of how parasites operate and how, once again, it turns out that we humans are a lot less in control of our minds and our behavior than we like to believe.

The article in The Atlantic can be found here.

What do you say? Could there be a mind-altering parasite in your life? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook!