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Are parasites and pathogens secretly running the show?

Jan Hearne • Mar 12, 2012 at 8:40 AM

Humans have long suspected cats want to control the world. We were wrong.

Though I catch my tabby, Clancy, trying to practice mind control several times a day — he fixes me with those blue-green eyes and stares without blinking — Clancy is a rank amateur compared to Toxoplasma gondii or Toxo for short.

If you can believe the research findings of an obscure Czechoslovakian scientist, it is not the cats but their parasites — Toxo — that have invaded our brains and are bending us to their will.

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Kathleen McAuliffe reports on the work of Jaroslav Flegr whose outrageous premise that Toxo can influence everything from car wrecks to couture is gaining ground in some scientific circles, though his theory has not been proved.

Before you show kitty the door, however, know that indoor cats are not a threat, and “outdoor cats shed the parasite for only three weeks of their lives, when they are young and have just begun hunting,” Flegr says. Practicing common-sense hygiene is sufficient to keep the parasites at bay. Flegr himself has two indoor/outdoor cats.

Humans are much more likely to come into contact with Toxo through unwashed vegetables, improperly purified water in developing countries and undercooked meat. So, forgo the rare steak and keep kitty.

That being said, Flegr’s research is fascinating to me — and disturbing. Toxo essentially changes its victims by “tweaking the connections to our neurons,” he says. Infected subjects tend to be more extroverted and show less fear. Infected men dress more sloppily, while women with the parasite are more likely to be decked out in designer labels. Both sexes, when infected, have slower reaction times, which may lead to more car accidents.

Interestingly, McAuliffe writes that Toxo isn’t the only invader playing mind games. One research team, who suspected the flu virus might make us more likely to socialize, followed 36 subjects who had received flu shots. “The flu shot had the effect of nearly doubling the number of people with whom the participants came in close contact” during the small amount of time a live virus would have been most contagious, McAuliffe wrote. (To avoid confusion, I want to make it clear the flu vaccine does not contain live viruses or spread the flu.)

My personal experience supports the research team’s hypothesis. I have had the flu twice, and both times I was drawn to public places the night before it felled me: Once, to a crowded mall even though I was exhausted, and the other time to a popular restaurant when my throat was scratchy and my energy level zilch. Completely out of character for me.

Is it possible pathogens are running the show? I’m with the editor of The Week, who wrote, “We just can’t go there.”

Otherwise, our species, which is only too willing to pass the buck, will have one more excuse for its idiocy.

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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