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Cat Parasite May Affect Cultural Traits in Human Populations

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Toxoplasma gondii pseudocyst in subcutaneous tissue of otherwise-normal scalp skin
Above: Toxoplasma gondii pseudocyst (16 µm) in subcutaneous tissue of otherwise-normal scalp skin. Image courtesy of M. Lisci, M.D., and G. Cera, M.D., Ospedale di Mondovì, Italy. (From Atlas of Medical Parasitology). [larger version]

Little is known about the causes of cultural change, but behavioral manipulation by a common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, may be among the factors that play a role, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published in the August 2, 2006, issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology.

"In populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change," said study author Kevin Lafferty, a USGS scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has conducted extensive studies of parasites in coastal ecosystems. "The geographic variation in the latent prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii may explain a substantial proportion of human population differences we see in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work, and rules."

Although this sounds like science fiction, it is a logical outcome of how natural selection leads to effective strategies for parasites to get from host to host, said Lafferty. Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite of cats, both domestic and wild. Although modern humans are a dead-end host for the parasite, Toxoplasma appears to manipulate human personality by the same adaptations that normally help it complete its life cycle. The typical journey of the parasite involves a cat and its prey, starting as eggs shed in an infected cat's feces, inadvertently eaten by a warm-blooded animal, such as a rat. The infected rat's behavior alters so that it becomes more active, less cautious, and more likely to be eaten by a cat, where the parasite completes its life cycle. Many other warm-blooded vertebrates may be infected by this pathogen, including marine mammals: a study begun in 2001 discovered that Toxoplasma gondii had caused 8 percent of stranded-sea-otter deaths in California between 1967 and 1989, the sea otters likely acquiring the parasite from cat feces that had been washed to sea (see Sound Waves article, Parasites as Indicators of Coastal-Ecosystem Health). In humans, the parasite commonly causes mild flu-like symptoms, after which it tends to remain in a dormant state in the brain and other tissues.

Evidence for subtle long-term effects on an individual's personality reported by researchers in the Czech Republic inspired Lafferty to explore whether a shift in the average, or aggregate, personality of a population might occur where Toxoplasma has infected a higher proportion of individuals. Infection with Toxoplasma varies considerably from one population to another; in some countries it is very rare, while in others nearly all adults are infected. To test his hypothesis, Lafferty used published data on cultural dimension and aggregate personality for countries where there were also published data on the prevalence of Toxoplasma antibodies in women of childbearing age. Pregnant women are tested for antibodies because of the serious risk posed by toxoplasmosis to fetuses, which lack their own immune systems.

The results of previous work suggested that Toxoplasma could affect specific elements of human culture. Toxoplasma is associated with different, often opposite behavioral changes in men and women, but both genders exhibit guilt proneness (a form of neuroticism). Lafferty's analysis found that countries with high Toxoplasma prevalence had a higher aggregate neuroticism score, and Western nations with high prevalence also scored higher in the "neurotic" cultural dimensions of "masculine" sex roles and uncertainty avoidance.

"There could be a lot more to this story. Different responses to the parasite by men and women could lead to many additional cultural effects that are, as yet, difficult to analyze," said Lafferty.

Lafferty suggested that because climate affects the persistence of infectious states of Toxoplasma in the environment, it helps drive the geographic variation in the parasite's prevalence by increasing exposure risk. The parasite's eggs can live longer in humid, low-altitude regions, especially at mid latitudes that have infrequent freezing and thawing. Cultural practices of food preparation—such as rare or undercooked meats, or poor hygiene—and cats as pets also can increase exposure to infection. Lafferty added, "Toxoplasmosis is one of many factors that may influence personality and culture, which may also include the effects of other infectious diseases, genetics, environment, and history. Efforts to control this infectious pathogen could bring about cultural changes."

"This is not to say that the cultural dimensions associated with T. gondii are necessarily undesirable," noted Lafferty. "After all, they add to our cultural diversity."

Related Sound Waves Stories
Parasites as Indicators of Coastal-Ecosystem Health
August 2002

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cover story:
Oil Spill Response Exercise

Mapping the Sea Floor Off Santa Barbara, CA

Research Underwater Sand Waves Seaward of Golden Gate Bridge

Manatee Traveler in Northeastern Waters Not Chessie

Cat Parasite May Affect Cultural Traits in Human Populations

Outreach MIT Students Visit USGS Woods Hole

USGS Participates in Waquoit Bay Watershed Block Party

Awards USGS Intern Receives Fulbright Scholarship

Staff USGS Employees Make Semifinals in Local Outrigger-Canoe Races

Publications usSEABED: Sediment Data for the Northern Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean

New Coastal and Marine Digital Library

September 2006 Publications List

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