Toxoplasma: Cats, Rats and Mind Hacks
Bizarre and Beautiful: More than a third of the world’s population is infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. We pick it up from uncooked meat or from changing a cat’s litter box. Although apparently harmless to healthy adults, “Toxo” is dangerous to the human fetus and to immuno-compromised people. This is why pregnant women and people with vulnerable immune systems are advised to avoid cats.
Mind Control: The parasite infects the limbic areas of the brain near the fear and sexual attraction regions. Because it carries a gene that codes for an enzyme crucial in dopamine production, it can alter levels of this neurotransmitter. Infected rats become oddly fearless of cats but not of anything else, making it likely that they end up in a cat’s intestine, the only place where the parasite can reproduce! They also make more testosterone and mate more, ensuring the spread of the parasite to other rats. The ability of parasites to manipulate host behavior for their own benefit is extremely rare in mammals because our blood brain barrier is so effective in keeping most pathogens out. But not this one.
Why Cats Rule the Internetz: If this parasite can profoundly affect rats, what about people? Studies have shown that infected men have altered behavior and personality including a tendency to disregard rules, higher suspiciousness and jealousy. Schizophrenics are more likely to be infected with Toxoplasma, and there are disturbing links to suicide as well. A 2006 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that antipsychotic drugs, commonly used to treat schizophrenia, reverse the fearlessness effects of T. gondii in the brain. This is why the CDC classifies toxoplasmosis as a neglected parasitic disease.
Image: A rosette of Toxoplasma gondii cells by Markus Meissner (University of Glasgow, UK) from Nature Methods http://goo.gl/E825h