NO ONE WOULD accuse Jaroslav Flegr of being a conformist. A self-described “sloppy dresser,” the 53-year-old Czech scientist has the contemplative air of someone habitually lost in thought, and his still-youthful, square-jawed face is framed by frizzy red hair that encircles his head like a ring of fire.
Certainly Flegr’s thinking is jarringly unconventional. Starting in the early 1990s, he began to suspect that a single-celled parasite in the protozoan family was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was messing with his mind, he reasoned, it was probably doing the same to others.
The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. 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. And that’s not all. He 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.”
Studies suggest that Toxoplasma gondii infections may contribute to suicidal tendencies in women, lending truth to the term “crazy cat lady.” An interesting phenomenon that Flegr observed during his studies is that women and men are affected differently by T. gondii infections:
Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.
Infected men dressed in an unkempt fashion, while women tended to be meticulously attired. Having had many cats during my lifetime, I was worried I could be infected until I read this part of the article. I am not a snappy dresser and I am not very trusting or outgoing. I suppose a T. gondii infection could improve my social skills and appearance, actually. Hmmm…should I go sift through a litter box?