What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close

One Third of Humanity May Host a Mind-Altering Parasite

May 6, 2013, 12:00 AM
Shutterstock_129390089

This article originally appeared in the Newton blog at RealClearScience. You can read the original here

In the opening scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, two Starfleet officers find themselves in quite a perilous situation. Captured by a group of renegades bent on revenge against Captain James T. Kirk, the duo is forced to host slimy, grotesque parasitic worms that crawl into their ears and roost in their brains. There, the parasites exert control over the two officers, bending their minds to the will of the renegades. 

To the best of our knowledge, insidious parasites like these only exist in science fiction. However, there is an organism on Earth -- a single-celled protozoan to be specific -- that bears a striking resemblance. And alarmingly, it may infest as much as a third of humanity (including 45% of the French)!

That parasite is Toxoplasma gondii. Commonly found in domestic cats, it sexually reproduces only within feline intestines. Humans can contract the parasite by ingesting anything contaminated with cat feces. Once infected, individuals may succumb to mild, flu-like symptoms for a couple weeks, but little more. Often no symptoms manifest at all. The parasite's apparent harmless nature cloaks its presence. Soon after finding its way into a human host, it weasels its way into the brain. There, "sheltered from the full fury of the immune system," it can remain in what's called a tissue cyst for decades, not reproducing, just persisting. But in this form, researchers are finding that it can produce some subtle and startling changes in the host's behavior.

Biologist Jaroslav Flegr, one of the leading researchers on T. gondii has discerned some very peculiar findings when comparing people with the infection to those without it. Kathleen Mcauliffe reported on this last year in The Atlantic:

...males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people's opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Additionally, people infected with T. gondii display slightly impaired motor skills, undertake more risks, and get into more automotive accidents. Furthermore, 38 studies have linked the parasite with schizophrenia, a fact which fascinates neurologist and Yale assistant professor Steven Novella.

"Some drugs which are typically used to treat schizophrenia actually have anti-toxo effects," Novella said on a recent episode of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. "So they may work because they're actually counteracting toxoplasma, itself." 

How T. gondii subtly reprograms the brain is still not well understood. Studying the parasite outside of the body, researchers have found that it profoundly affects gene expression in host cells, as well as molecules involved in signal transduction pathways. If neurons in the brain are influenced in the same manner, that could possibly give rise to the behavior-altering effects.

Worldwide, as many as 1 in 3 people have T. gondii in their brains. Scary, I know. But hold off on any urges to cull the cat population. Indoor cats pose little to no threat to their owners, and the prevalence of infection is only about 1 in 10 in the United States (and currently declining). However, that's still a significant amount, a preponderance that makes you wonder how much of an effect these microscopic, mind-altering parasites really have on human interactions and everyday life as we know it.

(Image: Toxoplasmosis via Shutterstock)

 

 

One Third of Humanity May H...

Newsletter: Share: