First of all, I would like to make it clear that I am not a member of the Tea Party. I promise to avoid, in this little essay, the shocking changes in font size and color that make scrolling through those “Christmas Banned by White House” type documents such a Barnum and Bailey poster experience. I’m hoping to convey, however, just a morsel of the shock that I experienced this morning when I clicked on a NYT article entitled “Cat Got Your Brain”. It seemed an odd attempt at humor, written from a cat’s perspective, about cats manipulating humans by means of some infectious agent. The conclusion of the article, containing syntheses of conventional vocabulary and human rendered cat voice language, was disturbingly inane, and unenlightening to me. Obviously I’d missed some prior news story, or some clue within the text, that was essential to tie this bit of editorial science fiction to the real world. There was what I had taken to be a contrived bit of nomenclature pertaining to the “infectious agent”, early in the column, and looking back I noticed it was highlighted as a link. Hmmm……should have noticed that the first time through. And so I clicked on Toxoplasma gondii. I’m not linking it here because I don’t want your reading of my little story interrupted by your clicking. I’m going to try to put it in a nutshell for you:
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that infects many warm blooded creatures. Humans, other mammals and birds. Cats are the parasite’s primary host, the host where the bug (a protozoa) reproduces sexually. In all its other hosts the bug reproduces asexually. All of this reproduction is disruptive of normal cellular activity and alters brain function in the host creatures. Studies on rodents have determined that infection with T. gondii particularly affects aspects of the brain involved with fear and inhibition, to the extent that rats and mice infected with the bug are actually attracted to the smell of cat urine, providing a convenient avenue for the parasite to re-enter its primary host, where its evolution can continue.
Toxoplasmosis in humans has long been associated with fetal malformation and with encephalitis and dementia in immunocompromised individuals. There is however much speculation, and a good bit of research indicating, that psychiatric disorders in immunocompetent humans may result from T. gondii infections. Disorders including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Other studies have indicated that infected humans are up to six times as likely to be involved in auto accidents. Sea otters, whales, and dolphins have been found infected, notably near estuaries where it is presumed that parasitic oocites, in cat feces, are washing into the oceans. Beached whales have been found to be hosts of T. gondii.
Kicker: Studies indicate that 75% of the world’s human population may be infected, between 10 and 22% in the U.S.