I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you. There’s a good chance that your brain is infested with parasites, reducing your intelligence, messing up your eyesight and putting you at a considerably greater risk of having a traffic accident or going insane. These nasty little beasts are also suspected to influence behaviour for their own sinister purposes, even to the point of seemingly making people commit suicide.
But don’t worry — if you’re not infected yet (“please God not me!”), there’s every chance you can avoid this terrible fate! Read on and I’ll tell you how you can avoid becoming the unwitting victim of the nightmare brain parasite from Hell.
What Is It?
Toxoplasmosis gondii is a tiny animal (a protozoa) that reproduces in the intestines of cats. While cats are the natural host of toxoplasmosis, and the only one in which it can reproduce, nevertheless the protozoa happily infects other mammals such as ourselves, where it invades the muscles and the brain, forming protective cysts (egg-like structures) as it comes under attack by the immune system.
How Do I Catch It?
Before your throw out your poor moggy, let me tell you that owning a cat is not the most common way of contracting toxoplasmosis.
Beside, kittens are cute. Proof:
In fact, the most common route to infection is thought to be the ingestion of undercooked meat. For this reason, the infection rate in France, where rare steaks are considered an essential part of the diet, is extremely high — some studies have found that most of France is infected with toxoplasmosis, compared to about 20% of the population of the United States. France, as it happens, also has a lower average IQ than that of many other European nations, possibly due entirely to toxoplasmosis infection.
Other important routes include ingestion of unwashed fruits and vegetables, or the drinking of infected water.
OK, So Parasites Want To Eat My Brain: Should I Care?
A number of studies have demonstrated that people infected with toxoplasmosis have far more traffic accidents than non-infected people. Yes, that guy who smashes into you on the motorway may well have made the mistake of eating a rare steak a couple of weeks earlier. In fact, the most dangerous period appears to be the first two years after infection.
Infected people also have IQs that are on average lower than those of uninfected individuals. Whether that’s because toxoplasmosis infection lowers IQ (very likely!) or because people who are not the sharpest cookie in the tin happen to enjoy eating raw meat and unwashed apples, is not entirely clear. Toxoplasmosis infection is also associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia and eyesight problems. If a developing fetus gets infected with toxoplasmosis via its mother, the effects of the parasite can be extremely serious.
The scary thing is, the effects we’re talking about here are not small. Studies have found that traffic accident rates for people newly-infected with toxoplasmosis are around six times higher than for non-infected people. Get into a car with someone who has contracted toxoplasmosis in the past couple of years, and you are really taking your life into your hands.
Of course, traffic accidents are only one possible type of thing that can go wrong in life! Imagine the kinds of bad decisions and terrible mistakes that infected people are making on a daily basis throughout your country, and you start to get a feel for the scale of the problem. Toxoplasmosis is a real and serious danger which we’re ignoring because …. well, we like rare steaks and brain parasites are just too scary to contemplate.
The Brain Parasites Made Me Do It
Possibly the most intriguing aspect of all this is the question of whether toxoplasmosis affects human behaviour. It certainly affects the behaviour of mice and rats. It appears that rats infected with toxoplasmosis lose their fear of cats, and while uninfected rats find the smell of cat urine terrifying, infected rats seem to actually like the smell. This effect seems to be highly specific; infected rats aren’t attracted to disturbing odors in general — only to the scent of cat urine.
Studies show that there are significant correlations between certain human behavioural traits and toxoplasmosis infection. so while toxoplasmosis has a big effect on the behaviour of rodents, it also seems to have a slighter and more nebulous effect on the behaviour of humans. The effects appear to be sex-specific, with women becoming more conscientious, moralistic and outgoing, while men become more suspicious, dogmatic and less conscious of rules. Remind you of anyone you know? Both sexes score higher for apprehensiveness after infection.
The parasite’s behavioural effects in humans may be largely related to non-specific factors such as general mild brain inflammation and neurotransmitter modulation; nevertheless the parasite does congregate in specific brain areas such as the amygdala, an area associated with emotion, memory and certain aspects of social behaviour. The peculiar affinity of toxoplasmis for particular brain areas suggests that the nasty little critter may well know what it’s doing, and may be doing it for its own benefit.
Could toxoplasmosis cause us to like cats more than we would otherwise? The jury is still out on that one.
Aarghh! Get It Out Of Me!
If you’re already infected with toxoplasmosis, there’s probably nothing you can do about it. You probably didn’t notice the initial infection; toxoplasmosis typically causes only mild, flu-like symptoms — unless your immune system is compromised, in which case it drives you mad and kills you. But the good news is (if you can call it good news), that your immune system will gradually get a grip on the parasite, forcing it to retreat into its egg-like cysts and massively reducing its impact on your life.
The best cure is: don’t get it in the first place. Don’t eat undercooked meat, wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, and if you have pets, wash your hands regularly — especially after clearing out litter trays! You may disagree (especially if you’re French and love rare steaks), but to my mind all of this is common sense.
Decreased level of psychobiological factor novelty seeking and lower intelligence in men latently infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii Dopamine, a missing link between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis?
Exposure to Toxoplasma gondii and cat ownership in Nova Scotia.
For a second I read this one as “cat worship in Nova Scotia”. What?? They worship cats in Nova Scotia??? But sadly it’s only about owning cats.