Half The Human Population Is Infected!
I first encountered this idea while working on my book Parasite Rex. I was investigating the remarkable ability parasites have to manipulate the behavior of their hosts. The lancet fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum, for example, forces its ant host to clamp itself to the tip of grass blades, where a grazing mammal might eat it. It’s in the fluke’s interest to get eaten, because only by getting into the gut of a sheep or some other grazer can it complete its life cycle. Another fluke, Euhaplorchis californiensis, causes infected fish to shimmy and jump, greatly increasing the chance that wading birds will grab them.
Those parasites were weird enough, but then I got to know Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled parasite lives in the guts of cats, sheddding eggs that can be picked up by rats and other animals that can just so happen be eaten by cats. Toxoplasma forms cysts throughout its intermediate host’s body, including the brain. And yet a Toxoplasma-ridden rat is perfectly healthy. That makes good sense for the parasite, since a cat would not be particularly interested in eating a dead rat. But scientists at Oxford discovered that the parasite changes the rats in one subtle but vital way.
The scientists studied the rats in a six-foot by six-foot outdoor enclosure. They used bricks to turn it into a maze of paths and cells. In each corner of the enclosure they put a nest box along with a bowl of food and water. On each the nests they added a few drops of a particular odor. On one they added the scent of fresh straw bedding, on another the bedding from a rat’s nests, on another the scent of rabbit urine, on another, the urine of a cat. When they set healthy rats loose in the enclosure, the animals rooted around curiously and investigated the nests. But when they came across the cat odor, they shied away and never returned to that corner. This was no surprise: the odor of a cat triggers a sudden shift in the chemistry of rat brains that brings on intense anxiety. (When researchers test anti-anxiety drugs on rats, they use a whiff of cat urine to make them panic.) The anxiety attack made the healthy rats shy away from the odor and in general makes them leery of investigating new things. Better to lie low and stay alive.
Then the researchers put Toxoplasma-carrying rats in the enclosure. Rats carrying the parasite are for the most part indistinguishable from healthy ones. They can compete for mates just as well and have no trouble feeding themselves. The only difference, the researchers found, is that they are more likely to get themselves killed. The scent of a cat in the enclosure didn’t make them anxious, and they went about their business as if nothing was bothering them. They would explore around the odor at least as often as they did anywhere else in the enclosure. In some cases, they even took a special interest in the spot and came back to it over and over again.
The scientists speculated that Toxoplasma was secreted some substance that was altering the patterns of brain activity in the rats. This manipulation likely evolved through natural selection, since parasites that were more likely to end up in cats would leave more offpsring.
The Oxford scientists knew that humans can be hosts to Toxoplasma, too. People can become infected by its eggs by handling soil or kitty litter. For most people, the infection causes no harm. Only if a person’s immune system is weak does Toxoplasma grow uncontrollably. That’s why pregnant women are advised not to handle kitty litter, and why toxoplasmosis is a serious risk for people with AIDS. Otherwise, the parasite lives quietly in people’s bodies (and brains). It’s estimated that about half of all people on Earth are infected with Toxoplasma.
Given that human and rat brains have a lot of similarities (they share the same basic anatomy and use the same neurotransmitters), a question naturally arose: if Toxoplasma can alter the behavior of a rat, could it alter a human? Obviously, this manipulation would not do the parasite any good as an adaptation, since it’s pretty rare for a human to be devoured by a cat. But it could still have an effect.