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Parasites in the Brain

(Editor's note - this blog post complements an earlier one on the Small Things Considered blog; http://www.microbeworld.org/index.php?option=com_jlibrary&view=article&id=2040, it even uses the same picture. It's fascinating, so I hope you enjoy)

In 1896 Scientific American ran an editorial titled "Is insanity due to a microbe?", and thus started a lively discussion on infectious causes of schizophrenia, epilepsy and other diseases of the mind. Apparently, I have benn living under a stone for all of my life, because word of this idea - that microbial parasites could alter human brain function and cause real changes in human behavior - did not reach me until very recently, when WYNC Radio Lab aired an entire episode on parasites.

Of course I had heard - in undergraduate zoology classes - about parasites that infect and release chemicals into ants brains and make them perform all kinds of suicidal stunts, so that the parasite may land comfortably in the stomach of a bird, sheep or whatever else is its preferred definite host, but at the time I was more surprised to learn that ants actually had a brain, than that I seriously contemplated the possibility that tiny parasites could cause similar alterations in human behavior.

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