You are what you eat

toxoplasma_gondii_tachyOne of the most interesting parasites is the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. This sucker is everywhere and capable of some pretty amazing behavioral host manipulations.

 Nearly all warm-blooded organisms can be an intermediate host for this parasite. The parasite reproduces asexually in this host and forms cysts in its muscles and brain tissues. The parasite “wants” (in an evolutionary sense) its intermediate host to be consumed by its definitive host (wild and domestic cats) and has evolved elaborate mechanisms for altering its host’s behavior to make this happen. For example, infected mice become more active and more willing to spend time in open areas.

 Studies in rats have produced even more surprising results. Rats have an innate aversion to cat urine because it is usually a very good indicator that a predator is in the area. A study comparing rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii to uninfected controls discovered that not only do infected individuals lack the characteristic aversion response, but they actually seem to be drawn TO cat urine, a behavior which is certainly risky for a rodent.

 So parasites seem pretty capable of modifying the behaviors of rodents. But what about people?

 For many years, infection by Toxoplasma gondii in people wasn’t thought to be serious. Infected individuals would exhibit flu-like systems for a few days to a month or so, but after that would no longer feel “sick.” However, we now know that individuals remain infected because the parasite forms antibiotic resistant cysts that continue to reside in muscle and brain tissues.

 Recently, some labs have begun looking at whether or not Toxoplasma gondii has subtle behavioral effects that may have been overlooked in the past. Research is accumulating to suggest that this is indeed the case.

 Personality surveys have yielded mixed results, but the majority of surveys reveal that Toxoplasma gondii infected individuals exhibit significantly different behaviors than uninfected controls. For example, personality inventory results suggested that infected males are more vigilant, frugal, suspicious, jealous and less rule-following than male uninfected controls (any other women finding themselves wondering if particular ex-boyfriends were carrying heavy parasite loads??). Infected women, on the other hand, show a higher “superego strength,” meaning that they’re more moral, warm, persistent, rule-conscious and outgoing. These behavioral differences are more noticeable as time goes on.

 But that’s not all! Both infected men and women show higher apprehension, greater insecurity, and a decrease in novelty-seeking behaviors. Importantly, infected individuals appear to have slower reaction times than uninfected individuals. If you’re wondering whether or not the difference in reaction times is enough to matter, then consider the finding that infected individuals are 2.65 times more likely to be in a traffic accident than an uninfected individual.

 Finally, and perhaps most perplexing, is the finding that infected females are pregnant for a longer and are more likely to give birth to a son than a daughter.

 An important disclaimer should be made here. Because purposefully infecting people would be unethical, we can’t scientifically compare human behaviors before and after infection with Toxoplasma gondii. This means that it’s currently impossible to figure out whether this parasite induces the behavioral changes or whether individuals with a certain personality type are simply more likely to become infected.

 The jury is still out on the mechanism the parasite uses to induce these manipulations. Promising research suggests that manipulation of the dopaminergic system is to blame, but I’m not yet aware of anything conclusive.

 So how do people become infected in the first place? One common way tsteak1o come in contact with the parasite is through the consumption of uncooked meats. Lots of warm-blooded animals contain infective Toxoplasma gondii cysts in their muscles, so countries in which people often enjoy undercooked meats have a higher occurrence of infection.

 Additionally, having cats around can increase infection risks. Toxoplasma gondii offspring are passed into the environment with a cat’s feces, where they become infective a few days later. Consuming the parasite and becoming infected can occur after changing a litter box or gardening (if cats have been defecating in the garden), for example.

 Infection rates in a population depend on diet and feline exposure, and infection rates have been reported to be as high as 80% in some areas. In the United Kingdom, for example, a report revealed that up to 38% of stored meat samples contained Toxoplasma gondii.

 These results have interesting implications! First of all, it’s almost scary to ponder whether or not some of the behavioral attributes that you consider to be quintessentially “you” are subtly modified by parasites. Second, how much of the differences between cultures can be explained by differences in infection rates? Might it be more dangerous to drive in countries where people eat a lot of uncooked meat, for example? Also, can information about how parasite behavioral manipulations tell us about how our brain works? Hopefully, the future holds more answers!

 Read more(!):

 Lots of work on this topic have been done by the Flegr lab and a review of their work on how Toxoplasma gondii effects human behavior can be found here.

 A review of the rodent literature by Joanne Webster can be found here.

 A paper on how Toxoplasma gondii may affect human culture by Kevin Lafferty can be found here.   

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19 thoughts on “You are what you eat

  1. That is really interesting. When I first read muscle and brain cysts I thought these were more damaging parasites, but it’s really interesting how high the infection rates are in some places. Knowing they change reaction time and incite aggressiveness in males, maybe it would be smart to be checked for this parasite for athletics and if anger management problems are present. Honestly, I’m very interested to see how deeply this parasite changes a person’s personality. Really interesting stuff.

  2. I know I read something about this not too long ago, but I can’t place it… If it comes to me, I’ll come back and link!

    Also, interesting that the women tend to have more male than female children as a result. Presumably, they are infected before becoming pregnant. I wonder how that one works. It has been shown that women can, to a degree, help or hinder sperm (perhaps even being able to discriminate against particular males if they’ve got multiple fathers in potentia inside ’em)… could it be that their bodies are discriminating against Y-bearing sperm? Something to do with fertilization itself? Obviously, pure speculation. Any ideas?

    • Not what I had read earlier, but just coincidentally, I came across this in my Physio Psych reading just a minute ago…

      “An odd parasite has evolved a way to exploit the consequences of amygdala damage (Berdoy, Webster & Macdonald, 2000). Taxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite that infects many mammals but reproduces only in cats. Cats excrete the parasite’s eggs in their feces, thereby releasing them into the ground. Rats that burrow in the ground can become infected with the parasite. When the parasite enters a rat, it migrates to the brain where it apparently damages the amydala. The rat then fearlessly approaches a cat, guaranteeing that the cat will eat the rat and that the parasite will find its way back into a cat!” (Biological Psychology 9e, Kalat, James W.)

      Earlier, the text suggests that either the amygdala damage ‘destroys’ fear, or, alternatively (and preferable to the author, apparently), the rats have trouble interpreting and understanding stimuli with emotional consequence.

      Neat-o.

    • Monkeys too, by the way, show similar behavior with amygdala damage (not necessarily T. gondii)… but I shouldn’t start talking about monkeys. Oh no.

  3. I was aware of the possible link between T. gondii and Schizophrenia, but the rest of it has been unknown to me.

    Other interesting Parasites include Euhaplorchis californiensis, Dicrocoelium lanceolatum, and Spinochordodes tellinii.

    Hooray for little things that affect behaviour!

  4. Nice blog.
    Pretty sci-fi this parasite mind changing thing.
    I guess i will check your blog from now and them. But i really hate biologi so probably more them than now.
    Keep up the good work, i liked the way you wrote.

  5. I’ve heard of this in a top ten list of how a real zombie outbreak can be scientifically feasible. It’s really quite interesting, even outside all that flesh eating undead thing. Of course, if the world’s gotta have an apocalypse, I hope it’s a zombocalypse.

  6. I always think of Superman when I read super-ego. Like, your Ego dashes into a phone booth for a quick costume change then poses dramatically for the camera.

    And yay for mind-control parasites. Darn those ethics preventing us from exploring whether the parasites actually change behaviour or if the behaviours are just more common amongst catpeople.

  7. I was at a conference in St. Andrews recently (EHBEA) where the empirical research from the group you mentioned was presented. It’s really interesting stuff, especially since from an evolutionary point of view, the effects may still be seen in humans because of times in our history when gondii infection meant humans were subject to ‘Big’ Cat predation.

    That the parasite can cause such results in humans though, especially being so easily contracted (i.e. by merely being in contact with soil) is a little worrying 😉

  8. Are there treatments that can remove the cysts? If so, have there been any studies which study people’s behaviors pre- and post-treatment?

  9. As far as I know, no methods currently exist to completely remove the cysts. However, lots of drugs commonly used in schizophrenic patients inhibit the further growth of the parasite and a links between Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia are being explored.

  10. I will add this to my list of reasons I’m happy to be vegetarian!

    And if the laws of ethics ever change, I’ll gladly volunteer for infection.

  11. Regarding this snippet: “An important disclaimer should be made here. Because purposefully infecting people would be unethical, we can’t scientifically compare human behaviors before and after infection with Toxoplasma gondii.”

    Is there a treatment for Toxoplasma gondii that can eradicate it? It would be ethical to observe infected behavior, and then cured behavior. I would be very interested in the results since I both live with cats and have been known to eat undercooked meats. I have never been much of a rule-follower, and I’d like to know if that is ‘me’ or the parasites inside me that want to take over the world. 🙂

    -Chris

      • Well, that is certainly something that could be tested in a lab, using just mice and rats. I’d certainly be interested in the results.

        -Chris

  12. Pingback: Parasites: a weighty topic « Fundulus schmundulus

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