Toxoplasma mind-control: how your kitty’s litter box plans to take over the world

If you have a cat, chances are you have toxoplasmosa in your brain.

“What?! I have toxo-something in my BRAIN?!”
photo courtesy of “the brownhorse” a.k.a. Adam Bronkhorst

Whoah there, friend.  Put down the powerdrill.

I most likely have it too.  What can I say?  I love my kitty and she needs someone to scoop her poop.

In fact, according to my anthropology professor, about 50% of the world’s population has these tiny little guys chilling in their craniums.  But that’s okay, because toxoplasma is microscopic and no match for our advanced human immune systems.  We are, as the term goes, an evolutionary dead end for these creepy little parasites.  Up there in our heavily-guarded skulls, Toxoplasma gondii can’t lay their eggs or socialize with other little parasitic friends.  They can only watch in horror as you tune in to yet another episode of the Jersey Shore and curse the day that felines started relieving themselves in a box cleaned by easily-entertained hominid morons.

That’s right.  Much as we like to think of ourselves as Mother Nature’s darling creations, most parasites don’t want to have anything to do with us.  Toxoplasma, for instance, would rather hang out inside kitty’s tootsie-rolls until something much smaller than a litter-scoop comes their way.

Rats, for instance.

Toxoplasma LOVES rats.  Once these greedy little bastards get inside a rat’s brain, it’s one step closer to achieving what drives pretty much the entire biological kingdom: sex.

See, toxoplasma can only reproduce in the stomach of a cat.  In order to get there, it needs what we disease-mappers call a vector, or what Fluffy calls dinner.  So what toxoplasma does is implement some rodent mind-control.

Instead of being afraid of the smell of cats, an infected rat confuses the smell of cat urine with that of a sexually-charged rat female.  While normal rats run away, this poor, love-blind rodent ends up getting eaten, or as I like to think of it, screwed in the much less pleasant sense of the word.

All for being a horny parasite mind-slave.

nyan cat poops rainbows, not horrible brain-changing beasties.

Before you marvel at the lengths a one-celled organism will go to perpetuate its own kind, you may be wondering what affect this has on you.  If the little buggers aren’t interested in living in your stomach, then why should you even care?  Researchers observed people with and without the parasite in their brains and learned an interesting thing- toxoplasma may actually have some sway over our own behaviors, too.

They found that men infected with T. gondii are more introverted, more physically reckless and generally tend to ignore social rules.  On the other hand, women with toxoplasma have lots of friends and are usually regarded as more sexually attractive than parasite-free females.  Both are free from normal fear responses, similar to our aforementioned ratty pals.  They are more independent, more interesting, and generally unconcerned with how others view them- just like cats. Some studies even show a shrinkage of the cerebral cortext in schizophrenics, hinting that the protozoan might trigger the disease in genetically-susceptable individuals.  Some less scientific studies think that toxoplasma might be the harbinger of the zombie apocalypse (you knew I’d work that in there somewhere, didn’t you).

“you shall do my bidding, zombie rat slave”

So while you probably won’t go searching for the nearest Bengal tiger to chomp down on your liver, there’s a very good chance that T. gondii has influenced some of the major decisions you make in your life.  What you wear, where you go, and who you choose to go with you could all subliminally be impacted by tiny little parasites inside your brain.

Perhaps we should all just take a cue from our dogs and make our cats poop outside.  Let Mother Nature deal with all that infected kitty crap.

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