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Monday, April 09, 2012

Toonces is the tip of the iceberg

In March 2012, The Atlantic had an interesting and much-discussed article called "How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy." The central argument of the piece wasn't based on owners' emotional relationship to their cats. Rather, science journalist Kathleen McAuliffe discussed a "parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces." It "is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosi." Toxo is bad news according to the research of Czech evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flegr:
Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents.
The bottom line is quite disturbing -- the cat parasite is linked to incredible human carnage.
[Flegr] also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

....Closer inspection of Flegr’s reaction-time results revealed that infected subjects became less attentive and slowed down a minute or so into the test. This suggested to him that Toxoplasma might have an adverse impact on driving, where constant vigilance and fast reflexes are critical. He launched two major epidemiological studies in the Czech Republic, one of men and women in the general population and another of mostly male drivers in the military. Those who tested positive for the parasite, both studies showed, were about two and a half times as likely to be in a traffic accident as their uninfected peers.

...two Turkish studies have replicated his studies linking Toxoplasma to traffic accidents. With up to one-third of the world infected with the parasite, Flegr now calculates that T. gondii is a likely factor in several hundred thousand road deaths each year.
This information made me think of an old SNL bit:




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