Parasite In Brain? Mind Control Bug Affects 40% Of Population

By Philip Ross on March 28, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

parasite
A parasite in our brains, much like the one pictured here of the schistosome parasite which enters the body through the skin, is responsible for things like reckless driving and suicide, and, according to new research, affects 40 percent of the population. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Is there a parasite lodged in your brain that manipulates your behavior? According to scientists in the U.K., there's a 40 percent chance the answer is yes. The Telegraph reports today that a certain single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which burrows in the brains of domestic cats, also finds its way into humans and controls our actions. According to scientists, these mind control bugs are responsible for, among other things, reckless driving and an increased risk of suicide.

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Remember the movie The Happening, when an unexplained phenomenon drastically changed people's conduct and ultimately caused them to commit suicide? It's kind of like that.

Scientists say that the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, or Toxo for short, living in 40 percent of our brains affects our sense of fear and risk-taking. Researchers found that rats, with which humans share a number of characteristics with, infected with the Toxo parasite were attracted to the smell of cat urine, instead of being afraid of it.

"Pathways that normally responded to the smell of cat urine with alarm had been damped down, while the pleasure hormone dopamine, normally released in response to female rodent urine, was now triggered by the whiff of cat," The Telegraph reports. Scientists say it's all part of the parasite's way of spreading from host to host - rats that aren't afraid of cats are more likely to be eaten by them, thereby spreading the parasite to the cat.

In human studies, the findings were similarly alarming. While men infected with the parasite were more likely to become introverted and dress down, infected women behaved just the opposite - dressing up and acting more sociable. The more likely a person is to interact with others, the better chances the parasite has of passing itself on.

Joanne Webster, professor of parasite epidemiology at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph that parasites prefer the brain because it is removed from the body's immune system and also because it gives them "direct access" to the mechanisms of behavior.

We've known about the Toxo parasite since the 1920s, when scientists learned that the parasite was present in the feces of cats. During the AIDS epidemic, before antiretroviral drugs were effective and more widely available, the Toxo parasite was blamed for the dementia that many AIDS patients experienced towards the end of their lives.

The idea that parasites could control human behavior was first investigated in the early 1990s by an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague named Jaroslav Flegr.

"There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite," Flegr told the The Atlantic in March 2012.

He said he first learned of the ability of parasites to control their hosts 30 years ago after reading about how a certain flatworm can control ants by taking over their nervous systems. "It was the first I learned about this kind of manipulation, so it made a big impression on me," Flegr said.

According to The Atlantic, "If Flegr is right, the ... 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."

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