The Edmond Sun

January 18, 2013

Research: Plundering parasites prove plentiful

Mike Hinkle
Hey Hink

EDMOND — One of science fiction’s favorite themes is epidemic mind control. Some evil genius discovers how to replace, seize or otherwise alter people’s thinking in ways that force them to become servants in some diabolical plan. Spy novels thrive on plots where some victim is “brain washed” to the point where the will becomes subordinated to the nefarious purposes of an evil “controller.”

Recent scientific publications actually read like plots for monster movies. You can almost hear the sinister voice intone, “It started with the cats. People were next.”

So, pick up the Jan. 1 issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology, or the Jan. 26 issue of Science News, settle back with some popcorn and a soft drink and get ready to be “creeped out.”

As the announcer says, let’s start with the cats. Evolution crafted a sneaky little parasite science calls “T. gondii.” For fun, let’s call it the “T-bug” (“T” is, of course, for terror.) Anyway, evolution decrees that T-bug can only reproduce in the dark, moist, slimy innards of cats. Once the evil T-bug successfully multiplies, it leaves the cat (by methods that need not be discussed) and lurks around in the environment, undetected, waiting. It can invade and thrive in the muscle, organ or brain of any unsuspecting warm-blooded host. Along comes a dog, pig, horse, wombat, human — whatever — and the parasite strikes, making its home in the body of its victim. But, wherever it goes, it yearns for the cat. Why? Because it can’t reproduce anywhere else.

Enter the rat. We all know rats are always on the cat menu. So, it’s the lucky T-bug that infects the rat that gets eaten by the cat. The reproductive circle is closed. It’s party time.

Here’s where it gets creepy. The T-bug wants to skew the odds in its favor. It wants to help the cat in order to achieve its own sinister purpose. It wants to persuade the rat that cats aren’t dangerous. It wants to overpower the rat’s natural healthy fear of cats and tempt the rat to run willingly into the waiting jaws of the predator. In short, the bug wants the rat to sacrifice its life to serve the needs of the bug. Joanne P. Webster of Imperial College London says T gondii seems to drive rats to behavior that makes them appear to want to be cat food.

Where the normal rat flees in terror from anyplace it detects cat odor, the poor rat infected by the T-bug seems to find cat smell pleasant and exciting. Researchers theorize the T-bug hacks into the rat’s nervous system, causing male rats to interpret cat smell as “Oh, baby,” and females to interpret it as “Poor baby.”

Michael Dickinson, who studies parasites that “hack into the host’s nervous system” at the University of Washington-Seattle puts it this way. This is an area “where science meets science fiction.”

So, what has this to do with people? I thought you’d never ask.

The T-bug figured out how to invade and thrive in the brains of humans. According to one study, one in four Americans over the age of 12 is infected by the T-bug. In some parts of the world, the infection rate is nearer 95 percent.

Scientists have known for years they’re up there, but until recently, they were thought to be harmless debris. Recent research suggests the T-bug may, in fact, be manipulating human behavior.

For example, one study found people infected with the T-bug have more than double the risk of being involved in a traffic accident. It may be because the T-bug encourages risk taking and aggressive behavior. Maybe T-bug reduces reaction time.

Women infected by T-bug show higher risk of self-directed violence — including suicide. Science is only now exploring the extent to which human behavior might be influenced by the unseen mandate of the invisible T-bug.

What’s more, T-bug isn’t the only hitchhiker living, thriving and possibly manipulating the human brain. There are millions of these stowaways and science won’t know for decades whether or how we’re serving them.

Now for the terrifying finale. I’m in the L.A. airport discussing this with a politician from a state that need not be named. She remarks, “So these parasites persuade millions of voters … er victims, to completely disregard their own welfare and serve the selfish interests of the parasite?” “Yes, ma’am.” “And these parasites can be introduced into the brains of humans?” “Yes, ma’am.” She looks longingly at the throng of passengers milling about the terminal and says to herself, “Surely this can be harnessed.” Stay tuned for “Son of T-bug.” I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.