Cats, Parasites, and Personality

Imagine a tiny, singled-cell parasite that causes brain infections in people. Imagine there is no treatment. Imagine this parasite can affect your behavior. Imagine, too, it has infected so many people it might be responsible for some aspects of human culture. If this sounds like some Andromeda Strain or body-snatching alien, it is not. It is a lowly Earth creature so common the family cat may have left a sample of it in the litter box. Mothers and pregnant women may know this creature. It is called Toxoplasma gondii. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 60 million people in the U.S. are infected with Toxo. More liberal estimates suggest half of the world’s population may be infected. That would be a huge burden of disease, but for the fact that toxoplasmosis is largely asymptomatic. Most of us would be surprised to learn we had it. Still, Toxo is not always a harmless hitchhiker. The parasite may become active and cause encephalitis in patients with AIDS or other immunodeficiencies. The parasite also can cross the placenta to cause fetal infections. Active congenital infections may lead to neurologic and ophthalmic damage, seizures, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation. This is why pregnant women are urged to avoid stray cats and litter boxes. Cats are the primary hosts for T. gondii, which is shed in their feces for several weeks during part of the parasite’s lifecycle. People handling litter boxes or working in yards contaminated with cat feces may ingest the parasite and start an infection. Eating undercooked meats such as port, lamb and venison is another common route of infection. T. gondii infects a wide variety of mammals, but it needs to get back into a cat’s intestinal tract to complete its lifecycle. A Toxo-infected rat might be killed and eaten by a cat, thereby


introducing Toxo into its preferred host. But that’s chancy for the parasite: not all domestic cats are good hunters and rats are clever, cautious creatures. Maybe Toxo could manipulate the rat into being less cautious, and therefore, easier prey. And that’s just what the parasite appears to do. Toxo-infected rats have been found to be more active and less cautious than uninfected rats. The end result is more Toxo-infected rats are eaten by cats than normal rats. That’s bad for the rat, but good for the parasite. If Toxo can affect subtle behavioral changes in rats that are ultimately harmful to rats, can it also affect human behavior? The answer is maybe. Psychiatric symptoms have been noted in AIDS patients with active Toxo infections. In those cases, 60% of the patients had symptoms that included delusions and hallucinations. There also is epidemiological evidence to suggest that T. gondii may be associated with schizophrenia. Two related epidemiology studies found adults with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder also had greater childhood exposures to cats. Of course, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are hardly examples of “subtle” behavioral changes. Given the large number of seemingly healthy people who may be infected with Toxo, it is clear the effects of such infections will differ greatly depending on individual genetics and immunity, the virulence of particular strains of Toxo, the timing and route of infection, and other factors. So don’t throw the cat out. Still, there is some interesting data about variations in the prevalence of Toxo infections and human behavior—both subtle and pathological—in different countries. Kevin Lafferty at the University of California, Santa Barbara suggests that “in populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change.”


People with latent toxoplasmosis reportedly score themselves differently on personality test than do uninfected people. Risk-taking (e.g., extreme sports) and the inability to focus on a task have also been associated with Toxo infections. In the U.S., Toxo prevalence is higher in the Northeast (29%) than the South (23%) or West (18%). Prevalence is high in France (81%) and Brazil (79%) where diet and climate, respectively favor Toxo, but only 7% in Japan. So, is Toxo a partial explanation for why the French are so…French, the Mexicans are so macho and the Japanese are so formal? Is this why Boston is different from Biloxi? Should the ‘Nature versus Nurture’ debate be expanded to include toxoplasmosis status? Interesting questions. As Lafferty notes in one of his research papers, “Perhaps parasites and their effect on behavior have a bigger impact on our human world than presently imagined.”