Are Little Creatures in Cat Poop Controlling Our Minds?

People often joke that cats control humans: They eat the food we provide for them, sleep in the beds we give them, play with us only when it suits them. No one has ever joked about a cat-poop parasite controlling humans, but that's because it’s no laughing matter.

A newly released study by the University of Colorado Boulder points to toxoplasma gondii, a cat-borne parasite, as potentially being responsible for increased entrepreneurial spirit and risky behavior in business decision-making.

The study, a joint project of scientists and business professors that tested the saliva of nearly 1,700 subjects, found that toxoplasma gondii-positive individuals were “1.8 times more likely to have started their own business.” This observation fits with a phenomenon seen around the globe, as national statistics from 42 countries showed that toxoplasma gondii infection “prevalences proved to be a consistent, positive predictor of entrepreneurial activity.”

The parasite infects an estimated two billion people around the globe. Although pregnant women and people with weaker immune systems are at heightened risk for complications from toxplasma gondii infection, known as toxoplasmosis, most infected humans exhibit no outside symptoms of infection. But toxoplasma gondii “has been correlated with impulsive behaviors and health outcomes such as increased risk of car accidents, road rage, mental illness, neuroticism, drug abuse and suicide,” the study says.

Learning that may forever change your relationship with your cat.

"What makes toxoplasma gondii of such interest is the hypothesis that it is manipulating behaviors in more subtle ways, rather than making you bedridden or unable to go to work," says CU professor Pieter Johnson, a co-author of the study.

Published in scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study shows a causal link between a willingness to open up a new business and being infected with the parasite — but that doesn't mean you should open a deli if you test positive. The parasite may lead to increased risk-taking behavior, but there's no guarantee those businesses will be successful. It is also unclear whether people who are infected with the parasite are more entrepreneurial because of the infection or are already inherently entrepreneurial and so more likely to be exposed to cat feces.

Either way, the parasite is providing unique insights into how micro-organisms can affect humans in behavior-altering ways.

Going forward, Johnson is teaming with researchers from the veterinary school at Colorado State University and scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine whether there are differences in behavior depending on the source of where people acquire the infection.

In other words, is it possible that getting the infection from cat feces will make you more prone to opening up a bowling alley, while getting it from uncooked meat may make you more likely to open up a liquor store? Only time, and more research, will tell.

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