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.”
An evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, Flegr has pursued this theory for decades in relative obscurity. Because he struggles with English and is not much of a conversationalist even in his native tongue, he rarely travels to scientific conferences. That “may be one of the reasons my theory is not better known,” he says. And, he believes, his views may invite deep-seated opposition. “There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.” Another more obvious reason for resistance, of course, is that Flegr’s notions sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans.
But after years of being ignored or discounted, Flegr is starting to gain respectability. Psychedelic as his claims may sound, many researchers, including such big names in neuroscience as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, think he could well be onto something. Flegr’s “studies are well conducted, and I can see no reason to doubt them,” Sapolsky tells me. Indeed, recent findings from Sapolsky’s lab and British groups suggest that the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans. T. gondii, reports Sapolsky, can turn a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into an attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator. Even more amazing is how it does this: the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal. “Overall,” says Sapolsky, “this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.” Another academic heavyweight who takes Flegr seriously is the schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, in Maryland. “I admire Jaroslav for doing [this research],” he says. “It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that not many labs are doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”
What’s more, many experts think T. gondii may be far from the only microscopic puppeteer capable of pulling our strings. “My guess is that there are scads more examples of this going on in mammals, with parasites we’ve never even heard of,” says Sapolsky.
Familiar to most of us, of course, is the rabies virus. On the verge of killing a dog, bat, or other warm-blooded host, it stirs the animal into a rage while simultaneously migrating from the nervous system to the creature’s saliva, ensuring that when the host bites, the virus will live on in a new carrier. But aside from rabies, stories of parasites commandeering the behavior of large-brained mammals are rare. The far more common victims of parasitic mind control—at least the ones we know about—are fish, crustaceans, and legions of insects, according to Janice Moore, a behavioral biologist at Colorado State University. “Flies, ants, caterpillars, wasps, you name it—there are truckloads of them behaving weirdly as a result of parasites,” she says.
Consider Polysphincta gutfreundi, a parasitic wasp that grabs hold of an orb spider and attaches a tiny egg to its belly. A wormlike larva emerges from the egg, and then releases chemicals that prompt the spider to abandon weaving its familiar spiral web and instead spin its silk thread into a special pattern that will hold the cocoon in which the larva matures. The “possessed” spider even crochets a specific geometric design in the net, camouflaging the cocoon from the wasp’s predators.