Your Brain On Parasites

Ever wonder why some people have absolutely no fear? Hint: It could be tiny little brain invaders...

Have you ever wondered why some people have absolutely no fear? Or why some people come across as almost mechanically over-aggressive? It’s a very real possibility that their brain function and reasoning could be controlled by parasites. I’m not talking Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but definitely alluding to something equally as frightening. Parasites have been discovered living on and feeding off of almost all organisms and animals on this planet since the beginning of time. Keep in mind, in all this time, we’ve only cracked the tip of the iceberg to understanding their capabilities.

Parasites have a rough life; they have to be able to adapt to the environment inside one, two, or—if you belong to a class of parasitic worms known as trematodes—three different hosts—habitats that can be polar opposites from each other. Some trematodes will spend part of their life inside an ant, but can only sexually reproduce inside the bile duct of a sheep. Now ants aren’t typically on the menu for sheep, so how the hell are they supposed to bring their baby parasites into the world? To answer this, you would need to understand the capabilities of a parasite.

This is where things start to get all sci-fi. Parasites actually invade a region of the ant brain that controls the locomotive and mouth functions. During the day the ant behaves no differently than any other. But at night, it doesn’t return to the colony. Instead the ant climbs to the top of a blade of grass and clamps onto it with its mandibles. Up on its perch, it waits patiently through the night to be eaten by the sheep. If this doesn’t happen by morning it returns to the colony. Why? Because if the ant fails to go under cover, it would be baked by the sun; so too would the parasite. The parasite forces the ant to then repeat this cycle, until it is eventually consumed by a sheep. 

At this point you’re probably wondering, what does this have to do with me and is there a parasite indeed my brain? Luckily for us, this particular parasite probably wouldn’t be able to control you or your brain.

The parasite known as T. Gondii, one of the world’s most common parasites, is another story. Our feline friends play an important role in spreading toxoplasmosis, a disease that results from infection with the T. Gondii parasite. Cats can become infected by eating rodents, birds, or other small animals that already carry the disease. The disease is then passed in the cat's feces, and can stay dormant for many years, just waiting to infect its next target. Studies show that a whopping 50 percent of the world's population is infected with toxoplasmosis and may never even show symptoms.

We’re still very early on in regards to understanding the full potential of these parasites and the diseases they carry. Studies have proven that the personalities of infected men showed lower superego strength (rule consciousness) and higher vigilance. Thus, the men were more likely to disregard rules and were more expedient, suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic. Imagine a world of danger-seeking, rule-breaking dudes. The personalities of infected women, by contrast, showed higher warmth and higher superego strength, suggesting that they were more warm hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic. On top of that, both men and women had significantly higher apprehension compared with the uninfected subjects.

All of this information leads us back to the question: are we in control? Is how we feel and act truly of our own volition? Or are we just puppets to a parasite's greater goal?

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Your Brain On Parasites