The brain-dwelling parasite Toxoplasma gondii is estimated to be hosted by at least 2 billion people around the world, and new evidence suggests the lodger could be more dangerous than we think.
While the protozoan invader poses the greatest risk to developing fetuses infected in the womb, new research suggests the parasite could alter and amplify a range of neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, and also cancer. “This study is a paradigm shifter,” says one of the team, neuroscientist Dennis Steindler from Tufts University. “We now have to insert infectious disease into the equation of neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, and neural cancers.” The findings are part of an emerging field of research looking into how T. gondii, which is usually transmitted to humans via contact with cat faeces (or by eating uncooked meat), produces proteins that alter and manipulate the brain chemistry of their infected hosts.
Thus explaining “crazy cat lady” syndrome.
Perhaps it is not as simple as “cause and effect”. It could be a circular effect. About 1 out of every 3 people world-wide is afflicted with toxoplasmosis, but the rate is even higher among cat owners. So it is likely that a majority of these cat owners are infected. Toxoplasmosis changes the behavior of rodents around cats, and makes them less fearful. So it could also affect human feelings for cats. So someone gets a cat, gets infected with toxoplasmosis from that cat, and then gets an urge to get more cats.
I’ve discovered that I vastly prefer the company of cats to most of humanity.
Have you been tested for toxoplasmosis?
“To be clear, the researchers aren’t saying the brain parasite is definitively what’s behind people developing these debilitating illnesses, but it’s possible that T. gondii’s protein-based meddling in the brain environment could possibly influence or enable pre-existing susceptibilities in some people to these kinds of diseases.”
I did some reading up on toxoplasmosis about a decade ago, when a friend’s twenty-something son got mixed up with a crazy woman in her forties who was a classic “crazy cat lady” (except she was not old and she looked and acted like an oversexed teenager). Not much had been published in the medical journals at that time, and I doubt that much has been added since then.
There had been several studies on toxoplasmosis in rats. Some of the findings were that infected rats became greater risk-takers who would explore potentially hostile environments sooner, and more often, than healthy rats. They were attracted to cat urine, where healthy rats avoid that odor. They were more sexually active than uninfected rats.
There was conjecture at that time that “crazy cat ladies” did not experience the odor of cat piss the same way other people did, which is why they tolerated, and sometimes seem to prefer, to live in rooms that reeked of cat piss. There was conjecture that these women were promiscuous and as a group tended to have intense sexual relationships that did not last long. It seemed like as a group they had more automotive crashes than the norm, and that they were more frequently fired for abusing sick leave and other job perks, or fudging the paperwork. These are indicators of a greater degree of risk-taking.
Conclusions: In the specific case, the boy got dumped and the girl moved out of state, so that was resolved. My personal conclusion is to avoid any relationship with women who live with cat stink, or own more than two cats. I will not venture any more general conclusion.
It is a little scary that somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 adults tests positive for exposure to T. gondii. However there is no way to determine whether any of these positives is an active carrier, or whether the parasite has gotten into their brain.
Now if I were going to write a zombie apocalypse story, I would probably use a mutant strain of T. gondii as the agent…. But I don’t write that kind of story.