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A game of cat and mouse

If an alien bug invaded the brains of half the population, hijacked their neurochemistry, altered the way they acted and drove some of them crazy, then you might expect a few excitable headlines to appear in the press. Yet something disturbingly like this may actually be happening without the world noticing.

Toxoplasma gondii is not an alien; it is a relative of that down-to-earth pathogen Plasmodium, the beast that causes malaria. It is common: in some parts of the world as much as 60% of the population is infected with it. And it can harm fetuses and people with AIDS, because in each case their immune systems cannot cope with it. For other people, though, the symptoms are usually no worse than a mild dose of flu. Not much for them to worry about, then. Except that there is a growing body of evidence that some of those people have their behaviour permanently changed.

One reason to suspect this is that a country’s level of Toxoplasma infection seems to be related to the level of neuroticism displayed by its population. Another is that those infected seem to have poor reaction times and are more likely to be involved in road accidents. A third is that they have short attention spans and little interest in seeking out novelty. A fourth, possibly the most worrying, is that those who suffer from schizophrenia are more likely than those who do not to have been exposed to Toxoplasma.

Nor is any of this truly surprising. For, besides humans, Toxoplasma has two normal hosts: rodents and cats. And what it does to rodents is very odd indeed.
 
 

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  1. This article blew my mind!

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