Have You Considered Parasites?

I spend a significant amount of time trying to keep myself feeling like myself. It’s a substantial task.

It requires vigilant self-examination and analysis of my behavior as well as proven maintenance methods, such as exercise and meditation, to temper fluctuations in my mood.

I regularly reflect on my being and examine the great mysteries of life. For example: Why do I sometimes have the urge to smash things like dishes, and my family? Am I the world’s leading consumer of chocolate chips? Where do I submit this falsified doctor’s note, declaring I require two days uninterrupted bed rest?

I note planetary alignment and charts my moods as they correlate to phases of the lunar cycle.

I take Chinese herbs and visit an acupuncturist twice a month.

I strive to be a better me, every day.  But it’s possible my efforts are for nothing.

Because a parasite, commonly found in cat feces, may have control of my brain.

Talk about a mental health issue.

Just kidding. Infection by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii isn’t serious. Scientific studies linking the presence of the parasite in humans to such things as mood disorder and schizophrenia are so far limited, and it is estimated that only one-third of the entire world population is carrying it.

Staying informed of our potential as parasitic hosts, is simply a matter of getting to know ourselves better. It’s another ingredient in the complex recipes that makes us each unique. Jeff has blond hair, his mother’s smile and his father’s sense of humor. Susan has brown eyes, a mind for math and a tiny animal-like organism inside her body that makes her fold the bath towels just so.

Why would a single-celled protozoan care how we fold towels? Because besides schizophrenia (and did I mention schizophrenia?) Toxoplasmosis (that’s the name of the infection) may be linked to, “...other disturbances associated with altered dopamine levels—for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders.”*

When rats are infected by Toxoplasma gondii they become less afraid of, even attracted to, cats, making them more likely to be caught and consumed thereby spreading the parasites. Which is what they want.

E. Fuller Torrey, a psychologist cited in The Atlantic article I read, claims links between the upsurge in cases of schizophrenia beginning in the mid 1800’s, the same time humans began keeping cats as pets.  This begs the question (broached in several sources I’ve encountered): Does a crazy lady have cats, or does having cats make a lady crazy?

So now we know that when scientists suggest that certain environmental factors affect our mood, they’re not just talking about things, like Seasonal Affective Disorder. We must take into consideration not only obviously powerful things such as the sun, but also not so obviously powerful things such as single-celled organisms invisible to the naked eye, but smart enough to rearrange the grey matter in our brains.

“Exactly how the parasite may push vulnerable people over the edge is yet to be determined. Postolache (another psychiatrist) theorizes that what disrupts mood and the ability to control violent impulses may not be the organism per se, but rather neurochemical changes associated with the body’s immune response to it.”*

Any time I’ve been seemingly out of control, say, in the midst of a premenstrual tantrum, I’ve always felt at least slightly responsible for my outbursts.

But what if it’s not just hormones?

“I’m sorry for losing my temper, Dear, these parasite are giving me fits.”

This could be the release, from owning up to my behavior, I’ve long sought.

And while I’m sloughing off culpability, I want to make sure I’m not too hard on our feline friends (though mine’s a Class-A jerk), just because the only place Toxoplasma gondii can reproduce is inside their bodies. You can also pick up the parasite from dirt, meat, vegetables and drinking water. Additionally, scientists speculate there are plenty of other parasite besides Toxoplasma gondii out there, that have the same potential to affect our behavior. I’m guessing their mixed in with air particles.

Yet another reminder we are not in control.

If you can hear me, parasites, you can have me. I give up.

I used to think my eagerness to learn would never weaken. Today, I realize there is a limit to the things I want to know.

I think we should stop doing science now.