Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.
They Always Land on their Feet
“Brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii infects rats through cat feces. It reprograms the rats’ brains. Make them fearless thrill-seekers,” Erica shouted over the plane engine. “They’ll dance between a cat’s paws after infection. Cats give people Toxo too. Freaky, eh?”
“Not really. Imagine losing your fear of death–sounds exhilarating. The ultimate adrenaline high,” Dave answered.
“Suit yourself. See you at the bottom!” Erica leapt from the plane’s open door. Far below, Erica’s parachute unfurled.
Dave gazed at the mountain peaks below. Like fang-rimmed jaws. “I’m going now!” He jumped.
The skydiving instructor grabbed for him, missed. “Wait! You forgot your ‘chute!”
Do you own cats? Then there’s a chance that you’re already infected with toxoplasma gondii. The bad news is that Toxo is endemic among people who clean cat litter boxes, eat raw or undercooked meat, or eat unwashed veg. The good news? Provided you’re not pregnant or immunocompromised, Toxo appears to be relatively harmless.
Toxo’s a versatile protozoan (not the same thing as a bacterium or virus). All felines, from housecats to tigers, act as its primary host. Inside the intestines of cats, Toxo undergoes sexual reproduction and forms packages called oocysts in the intestinal lining. These oocysts, filled with dormant Toxo cells, get shed when the cat poops.
Next, the oocysts lie in wait for another warm-blooded mammal to stop by the cat scat. Someone like Dave, perhaps, scoops out the litter box, forgets to wash his hands, and with his next meal he consumes a few oocysts. When those oocysts hit his intestines, they spring into action, infiltrating the intestinal lining, but this time their goal is to release invaders directly into the bloodstream. These bits of Toxo ride your blood all over your body, setting up shop in your organs, muscles, and brain.
Yes, it infects your brain.
The Toxo forms cysts in the areas it settles in, and congratulations: you’re now permanently infected with Toxoplasma gondii. You’ve got ’em for life, buddy. Fortunately, this is as far as the Toxo can go. It just hangs out, hoping you’ll get eaten by a cat so that the whole cycle can start anew.
Unfortunately for Toxo, humans don’t get eaten much by felines these days. Perhaps we featured more prominently in Toxo’s life cycle back when lions and bobcats were a daily threat. Nowadays, it’s mice and rats that primarily perpetuate the Toxo cycle.
Here’s the interesting thing: in rodents, Toxo infection causes behavioral changes. Rats with Toxo lose their fear of cats. They’ll attack cats directly, or just waffle around when a cat comes after them. Obviously this is to the Toxo’s advantage — it wants the rat to behave dumbly so it can get eaten by a cat, continuing the life cycle. There’s evidence that Toxo causes personality changes in humans as well, making us more likely to take risks.
How common is Toxoplasma gondii? It’s one of the most common parasites found in humans. Up to a third of the world’s estimated to be infected. If you live in the United States, your odds are one in four. So wash your hands, wash your vegetables, and don’t eat cat poop. Otherwise you’ll join the standing army of Toxo carriers all around us right now.
- One Third of Humanity May Host a Mind-Altering Parasite (bigthink.com)
- Toxic toxo tricks the brain into taking risks (abc.net.au)
- Scientists Claim 40% of Population Infected with “Mind Control Parasite” (philosophers-stone.co.uk)